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Sequestration still haunting Washington

U.S. Capitol building, undergoing renovation, on November 12, 2014

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

When the House and Senate budget committees draft their respective 2016 budget proposals this week, many Republicans and Democrats will surely find one thing to agree on: Sequestration -- the blunt, across-the-board package of budget cuts designed to help stabilize the national debt -- was a lousy idea.

"Sequestration is more of a mindless approach, kind of a lazy man's way to effect some kind of a budgeting outcome, when it should be a much more targeted, much more thoughtful, much more tactical approach to cutting spending," Rep. Steve Womack, a conservative from Arkansas, said Monday in a House Appropriations subcommittee meeting.

Even so, when the House Budget Committee takes up its budget proposal on Tuesday, the sequester cuts are expected to remain a part of the plan.

"There is need for more defense spending, but we do not break the sequester," Rep.Diane Black, R.-Tennessee, a member of the committee, told the Wall Street Journal earlier this month. "We must abide by those numbers we agreed upon in the Budget Control Act," she said.

The congressional budget -- should lawmakers agree to one -- would offer a blueprint for federal spending in 2016. It would take a separate legislative effort to roll back the sequester cuts, enacted under the Budget Control Act of 2011, but many lawmakers say their reversal should be addressed in the budget blueprint.

If Congress fails to pass a budget resolution, it wouldn't be that extraordinary -- it hasn't done so since 2009. Yet the new, Republican-led Congress is aiming to pass a budget that would convey its commitment to conservative ideals.

"The president will not accept a budget that locks in sequestration going forward, and he will not accept a budget that severs the vital link between our national security and our economic security," Shaun Donovan, director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget, reminded Congress on Monday.

In other words, Democrats insist on ending the sequester cuts that hit both defense and domestic spending. In his own 2016 budget blueprint, President Obama proposed just that.

Mr. Obama on Monday stressed that the federal government should be making more, not less, investments in areas like education.

"My hope is that [the Republican] budget reflects the priorities of educating every child," he said from the White House after meeting with local school district leaders from across the country. "But I can tell you that if the budget maintains sequester-level funding, then we would actually be spending less on pre-K to 12th grade in America's schools in terms of federal support than we were back in 2000. And that's adjusting for inflation. The notion that we would be going backwards instead of forwards in how we're devoting resources to educating our kids makes absolutely no sense."

While Democrats have called for increased domestic spending, the rules of the Senate would allow the GOP majority to pass a budget resolution without their help. It's not a given, however, that the GOP could get a 51-vote majority to pass a version of the fiscally austere budgets that will be unveiled this week.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, released a statement Monday reaffirming his commitment to a military budget that not only breaks the caps set by sequestration but surpasses President Obama's proposal.

"At a time of growing worldwide threats, the sequestration-level caps on defense spending are putting our national security at unacceptable risk," he said.

Several other Republicans have expressed similar concerns, including a group of 70 House Republicans who wrote to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to call for an increased Defense budget.

The House Budget Committee has promised it "gives our military the resources they need to combat threats both today and in the future," but it may do so by relying on "contingency" war spending that is not counted in the budget.