Will Obama’s Charm Offensive Produce ‘Big Deal’ Needed to Turn Off Sequester Cuts?

President Obama makes a call in the Oval Office. Since last weekend, Obama has been making calls to some Republican senators. One topic: a potential Big Deal that could undo big defense budget cuts. (White House photo via flickr)

What’s this odd thing breaking out in Washington? No, not the snow storm the experts say is coming (any minute now…), but Republicans and Democrats mingling, talking about policy and legislation? The president is phoning and planning to wine and dine some GOP lawmakers? Republican and Democratic senators walking together through a throng of reporters, audibly discussing policy?

It can mean only one thing: Pursuit of the “Big Deal” is back. And, for defense wonks, it just might be one of the few paths toward turning off the sequester mechanism — and its Pentagon spending cuts.

Rumors picked up on Capitol Hill Tuesday morning that some Republican senators like Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bob Corker of Tennessee were talking to the White House. President Barack Obama even.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney confirmed that during his Tuesday briefing on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue:

“The president is engaging with lawmakers of both parties and will continue to do so.  He stood before you, I believe it was Friday, and talked about the need for bipartisan work on common ground when it comes to reducing our deficit. … He is reaching out and talking to members about a variety of issues — not just our fiscal challenges, but certainly the fiscal issues are among the issues he is talking about with lawmakers.”

Graham told reporters he is convinced Obama “wants to do the big deal,” meaning a broad fiscal package that pays down more federal debt, reforms the tax code, makes changes to domestic entitlement programs — and maybe, just maybe, finds a way to replace the nearly $1 trillion in cuts to planned defense and domestic spending slated to go into effect over the next decade.

Graham laid out his vision for such a Big Deal last Thursday, as I reported it on DefenseNews.com:

“We’re not going to do revenue to fix sequestration,” Graham said. “I’m willing to do $600 billion more in revenue if they’re willing to do entitlement reform. … The off ramp should be Republicans put revenue on the table to get the president close to the $1.2 trillion” in deficit-reduction measures mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act to void all the sequester cuts.

In return, Graham suggests Democrats agree to “structurally change Medicare,” raising the Medicare-eligibility age, and provide other changes to domestic programs.

The White House on Tuesday said Obama also wants to get rid of the sequester cuts:

“The administration will continue to press the Congress to eliminate the automatic and arbitrary cuts to current funding levels imposed by the … sequestration.”

Obama or his White House aides also have reached out to GOP Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Roy Blunt of Ohio and Susan Collins of Maine, according to sources and reports. Carney described the outreach strategy and the Republicans senators the White is reaching out to this way:

“The president is interested in finding the members of the ‘caucus of common sense’ and working with them to bring about a resolution to this challenge because we should be able to do it.”

Corker and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., were overheard having an intense conversation about policy en route to the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon. Reports Wednesday morning indicate Obama has invited members of this so-called caucus out to dinner, something he rarely did during his first term.

Based on my coverage of the fiscal cliff drama, I wrote on Jan. 10 that the biggest hurdle for those who opposed the sequester mechanism’s $500 billion, 10-year cut to planned Pentagon spending was Republicans and Democrats simply disagree on the components of the kind of deficit-trimming package needed to permanently turn it off.

Nearly two months later, little has changed. Can Obama’s charm offensive create the change needed to replace the defense sequester cuts?

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett