House Republicans are increasingly uncomfortable with the deep cuts scheduled for the Pentagon’s budget under the sequester. Behind the scenes, several prominent members have complained to the leadership, and many rank-and-file members who represent defense-industry workers are nervous.
But for now, most of the fretting Republicans are not criticizing Speaker John Boehner’s bargaining position, at least not publicly. Instead, House Republicans are singing somewhat reluctantly from the same hymnal.
“I think it’s the stupidest way to do business,” says Hal Rogers of Kentucky, the powerful appropriations-committee chairman. “I don’t like any across-the-board cuts,” such as the defense sequester. But he won’t break ranks.
The reason for Republican unity is strategic. Boehner is attempting to force President Barack Obama to negotiate on his terms. Republicans are open to replacing the $85 billion in cuts, which were included as part of a debt-limit agreement in 2011, but most are unwilling to replace them with taxes.
“We know what the menu of options are: cuts and reforms that we can put in place to put us on a sound fiscal path,” Boehner told reporters on Wednesday. “I don’t like the sequester,” he added, signaling his sympathy for the concerns of his frustrated colleagues. “But Americans do not support sacrificing real spending cuts for more tax hikes.”
The problem for Boehner is that while his members generally support his position, they are unhappy about having to explain these cuts back home. Privately, GOP members say, they never thought that Congress would actually implement these specific cuts.
“We all voted for this, but we thought at the time that both parties wouldn’t want to see this happen, so it’d make us work together,” says a House Republican close to the leadership. “Both parties still don’t want to do this, but it looks like we may be forced to, if the president keeps insisting on new taxes.”
Sources close to Boehner say the speaker is not going to budge, even if the pressure from the White House and fellow Republicans mounts. “The conference is firm and united against tax hikes,” says a Boehner aide.
But there is a sense among Boehner allies that the speaker would swiftly cut a new deal with Democrats to replace the cuts, if Democrats are willing to propose new cuts without requiring revenue as part of any agreement.
As Boehner and Obama clash about the structure of a potential replacement package, though, House Republicans are continuing to squirm. Outside the House chamber on Wednesday afternoon, a cluster of GOP members openly spoke about their growing unease, and the necessity of a compromise before March 1, when the cuts will be implemented. “Both sides need to come to the table,” says Rodney Davis (R., Ill.), a freshman.