WASHINGTON — The sequester deadline has come and gone, and nobody in Washington is anywhere closer to finding a solution to reducing the federal deficit than they were 18 months ago when they first agreed to it.
Indeed, things are so bad, even the Senate’s contingent of moderate do-gooders is sitting this one out.
Ever since the “nuclear option” fight during the Bush administration, knots of moderate senators have been at the heart of nearly every major crisis facing Congress, crafting compromises behind closed doors while dozens of reporters hover expectantly outside.
Although they’ve rarely produced a plan that becomes the final agreement, their presence has acted as a not-so-gentle prod to Majority Leader Harry Reid, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the White House, none of whom want to have their hands forced by the middle.
But this time around, there’s been no posse comitatus to hunt down a sequester compromise. Lawmakers involved in previous efforts told BuzzFeed there are a variety of reasons that the sequester is different than the debt ceiling, the 2009 tax extensions, the nuclear option, or other crises.
Part of the problem is that without downward pressure from the nation’s top political leaders, there’s little incentive for moderates to try to find common ground, said Finance Chairman Max Baucus.
“Well, it’s because the president and the speaker are not negotiating on the sequester… which makes it tough,” Baucus said this week, explaining that there’s not been the sort of urgency and conflict that traditionally set the table for a gang to emerge in the Senate.
“I don’t think this is mature enough as an issue. I think we’ve got to go through this hair-on-fire process that’s emanating from the White House,” Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said. “I’m sure they’re trying to make this as painful as they can for the American people, and I think at some point there will be an opportunity for a bipartisan solution. I’m not sure it will come from a gang. I hope it comes from a committee.”
A second major factor is that the sequester itself is, in fact, a solution — and a bipartisan one to boot.
The sequester “was the solution that a bipartisan group voted out of the Senate and the house. So first of all, you’re dealing with something that was a solution 18 months ago,” Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson said.
“The sequester is, in fact, a bipartisan solution that 18 months ago nobody thought would happen because its such a bad poison pill,” Isakson said. “Now I think it’s got to go into effect before something happens, but I think it will.”
There’s also the reality that many of the familiar gang faces — like former Sens. Olympia Snowe and Ben Nelson — are no longer in the Senate. At the same time, other moderates, like Sen. Mark Pryor, are facing tough reelection fights and don’t want to be anywhere near controversy for the next two years.
And then there’s the stigma of joining a gang.
Isakson bluntly argued that the media is partially to blame for the demise of the Senate gangs. “Every time a group of us get together to try and work on a problem, we get labeled a gang and then it becomes a political issue and we never get to finish the job,” the Georgia lawmaker said.
Indeed, one of the key aspects of the Senate gang life cycle is the discovery of its existence by reporters, which sets off a firestorm of speculation around what may, or may not, be happening inside their meetings. That, in turn, activates the two party’s wings, which launch offensives against the various gang members in an effort to torpedo any bipartisanship.
“So I think there’s a tendency, with all due respect, to not engage the media on what you’re trying to do cause you’ll just get labeled a gang,” said Isakson.
Corker agreed that there is some hesitancy for anyone to become involved in a bipartisan solution, but argued much of that reluctance may be a hangover from the fiscal cliff. “I think it’s probably the end-of-the-year process that’s still fresh in people’s minds.”
At this point, nobody on Capitol Hill is optimistic that a serious solution to the sequester issue and broader deficit and debt problems is in the offing in the short-term, regardless of whether moderates become fully engaged.
“It’s not time for it. I honestly believe that a better opportunity will arise for something that truly deals with this issue right before the August recess,” he said.
“We may continue along in this state of not really addressing the real issue, which is entitlements … but I think there’s a real chance that could address at least some part of that right before the August recess.”