Republicans Feeling Sequester Pain as Democrats Highlight Local Cutbacks

Democrats, on the defensive over the sequester, are fighting back. Eleanor Clift on how they are spotlighting cuts in GOP districts.

03.12.13 8:45 AM ET

Stung by the media’s focus on the suspension of White House tours as the symbol of stupid sequester politics, Democrats are fighting back.

Party sources are busily providing reporters with links to stories around the country that show the impact of the automatic federal budget cuts, with some Republican lawmakers starting to squeal. Congressmen who represent districts that rely on defense spending are especially feeling the pinch, along with those from rural areas where commercial air services are threatened.

The mounting complaints provide some context for President Obama’s visit to Capitol Hill this week, when he will make separate pitches to Republican and Democratic caucuses in both houses to replace the sequester with smarter, short-term cuts, coupled with a commitment to trim entitlement programs in exchange for tax reform and a promise of more revenue.

“We’ll hear more and more of this because over time more people will be affected by services that have been cut and programs that have been shut down,” says political analyst Stu Rothenberg. Whether a ratcheting up of public reaction will be enough to force action on the Hill to modify the sequester will depend on the GOP’s threshold of pain. “The White House wants to change it, and Republicans from defense districts want to change it,” says Rothenberg, “but there’s a whole chunk of Republicans ready to bite the bullet if this is the only way to cut spending.”

Texas Republican Blake Farenthold, faced with thousands of civilian workers at military installations in Corpus Christi slated for furloughs, has  introduced the Protecting America’s Civilian Employees Act to exempt federal employees from the sequester. Calling these reductions in force unacceptable, Farenthold is one of many Republicans seeking to ease cuts on defense while keeping in place the shrinkage in domestic programs. That approach that may sound good in a press release but will go nowhere in Congress where Democrats are equally determined to protect domestic spending.

In South Carolina, the Aiken Standard reported that sequestration is stripping $104 million from Savannah River Site contractors, which means furloughs or layoffs for 2,100 workers starting April 1. “And these numbers are just the start,” says the newspaper. GOP Rep. Joe Wilson “stood by his furloughed constituents,” the newspaper reported. Wilson is quoted as saying, “I remain committed to doing everything within my power to ensure that these issues are resolved in a way that best protects the Savannah River Site’s essential mission and the well-being of its hardworking employees.”

Sample headlines from around the country in districts represented by Republicans include these:


Opposition to the sequester has united the Virginia congressional delegation, which is headed by Majority Leader Eric Cantor. “We’re really ground zero for the defense cuts,” says Larry Sabato, who heads the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. The sequester was designed to be so onerous that it would push Republicans into a compromise on the assumption that the GOP wouldn’t jeopardize defense spending. “When you cut close to a dollar out of every ten dollars in a field as massive as defense, it’s going to hurt,” says Sabato.

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The White House remains hopeful that the fallout from the sequester in defense-heavy Republican districts and states like Virginia could still produce a compromise. Virginia is second only to Alaska in the amount of federal defense money it receives per capita. Sabato noted that his local newspaper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, featured cutbacks at national parks on its front page that morning. People plotting their travel are starting to realize they may not be able to do what they planned, he says.

“It’s going to take awhile for this to seep down into the grassroots and cause some kind of popular reaction,” he says, and that may take until summer.

The Washington Post brought the controversy home with a powerful front-page story on how park superintendent Dan Wenk at fabled Yellowstone Park is complying with a federal sequester order to cut $1.8 million from his budget. The painful tradeoffs are spelled out along with the reaction from Wyoming’s lone House member, Republican Cynthia M. Lummis, an enthusiastic backer of the sequester. She told the Post that Wenk should petition congressional appropriators for permission to shift money from his capital budget—a maneuver that Wenk, a 60-year-old experienced civil servant said even if it were legal, which it isn’t, would never get through Congress in time for this year’s tourist season.