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On Message: What Boehner's Saying (And What He's Not) About Sequester

Earlier, we broke down a statement that President Obama has repeated about the sequester. As we continue trying to decipher the messaging war over the mandated budget cuts scheduled to kick in Friday, we now take a look at the political talking points of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

House Speaker John Boehner

"You know, the president proposed the sequester, yet he's far more interested in holding campaign rallies than he is in urging his Senate Democrats to actually pass a plan. Listen, we know there are smarter ways to cut spending and to continue to grow our economy. That's why Republicans have acted twice ... to replace the sequester with what we would argue are smarter cuts." — Feb. 25

This one quote contains three favored talking points from House Republicans.

Message 1: The Sequester Was Obama's Idea

The question of whose sequester it really is has been heavily debated ever since Boehner called it "The President's Sequester" on the House floor earlier this month. The short answer is, the idea originated in the White House as a way out of what could have been an economy-crashing fight with Republicans over the debt ceiling back in the summer of 2011.

What They Aren't Saying

Republicans voted for it overwhelmingly. Without their votes, the Budget Control Act wouldn't have passed, and the sequester wouldn't exist today.

As South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, no fan of the sequester, said: "We have our fingerprints as Republicans on this proposal, on this sequestration idea. It was the president's idea, according to Bob Woodward's book. But we as the Republican Party agreed to it."

Regardless of paternity, it's easy to make the case that this is everyone's sequester now: White House idea, passed with overwhelming GOP votes, allowed to kick in only because of the failure of a bipartisan "supercommittee" and because, in the 18 months since then, compromise to replace it has been elusive. Part of the reason Boehner is working so hard to make sure everyone knows the idea originated from the White House is many House Republicans have said in no uncertain terms they want the sequester to go ahead. And polls show that if it does, Republicans will get the blame. Boehner would really prefer if it didn't turn out that way.

Message 2: House Republicans Have Twice Passed Bills To Replace The Sequester

It's true. In May they passed the Sequester Replacement Reconciliation Act, without any Democratic support. And then in December, House Republicans passed the Spending Reduction Act of 2012, also without any Democratic support. That's because these sequester replacement measures, among other things, would defund significant portions of the president's health care law — something Democrats wouldn't go for. The Democratic-controlled Senate never voted on them.

What They Aren't Saying

Both bills passed in 2012, during the 112th Congress. Remember earlier this year the huge uproar when the Hurricane Sandy relief bill died because the 112th Congress ended before the House could vote on it? Well, a lot of bills died with the start of the new Congress, and that includes those two. So there is no House-passed vehicle to avoid the sequester.

And it doesn't look like the House has any intention of voting again to replace the sequester, because there's a very big question of whether such a bill would pass. According to a recent story in Roll Call:

"Last year, the Sequester Replacement Reconciliation Act passed 218-199 in May with 16 Republicans voting against it. Then in December, the Spending Reduction Act passed by an even slimmer margin, 215-209, with 21 Republicans opposed. No Democrat supported either bill.

"More than 30 Republican members who supported the bills are no longer serving in the House because of retirement, loss of election or running for another office. And in the 113th Congress, Republicans have eight fewer seats in the House."

Message 3: The President And Democratic-Controlled Senate Must Act First

The message from Speaker Boehner and House Republicans for weeks has been: "It's up to the Senate." There are a few reasons for this message. The House may not be able to pass a sequester alternative of its own (see above). The Senate is controlled by Democrats and, as Republicans love to point out, hasn't passed a budget in quite some time. Painting the Senate as a bunch of slackers is a House GOP pastime, and this fits into that theme. If they can divert focus to the Senate, maybe no one will notice that the House GOP is struggling to say what it stands for on the sequester.

What They Aren't Saying

The Senate is scheduled to vote this week on at least two sequester avoidance bills. One comes from Democrats and includes the so-called Buffett Rule, raising taxes on the wealthiest. That's a nonstarter with Republicans. Because of the grand tradition of the filibuster in the Senate, pretty much every bill needs to meet a 60-vote procedural threshold just to get a floor vote. In this Senate, that means some Republican support is necessary — and in this case it's not likely. The other is a Republican bill, which is not expected to get Democratic support. So, House Republicans are taking a pretty safe bet that they can call on the Senate to act first, and it won't.

Technically, all bills that raise revenue have to originate in the House. Democrats are insisting that some new revenue be involved in any sequester replacement. But if a bill that originates in the Senate raises revenue, it has a "blue slip problem." There are ways around this, but given that the House GOP says it's done raising taxes, saying the solution has to start in the Senate may just be another way of saying "no more taxes."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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