To sequester or not to sequester?

fiscal cliff
President Obama debates with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Lynn University on October 22, 2012 in Boca Raton, Fla.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Obama's declaration at Monday's debate that the automatic spending cuts due to take effect at the beginning of 2013 "will not happen" surprised some lawmakers who say that the president's prediction belies a lack of progress made on averting the so-called "fiscal cliff."

By design, presidential debates aren't supposed to make news. The candidates generally stick to a battle-tested narrative, sharpening their case but studiously avoiding an unscripted moment that could usurp their chosen message.

But the president's remarks on the sequester were certainly news to some.

"I almost fell out of my chair when the president said, 'Don't worry, sequestration won't happen'," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, told Politico. "We've been begging the president to sit down with us to avoid what his own secretary of defense said would be a devastating blow to our national security."

The automatic spending cuts contained in the sequester - $1.2 trillion over a decade - resulted from the failure of last year's bipartisan deficit reduction committee to pass a deficit reduction plan. The law that established the committee tasked it with passing $1.5 trillion in deficit-reduction, and the sequester, which slashes equal parts defense and domestic spending, was established as a fallback in case the committee failed.

With the first round of cuts - $109 billion - slated to kick in on January 1, 2013, some lawmakers have been working to stave off the sequester by negotiating an alternative deficit reduction plan.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., one of a bipartisan group of senators working to avoid the sequester, echoed McCain's surprise: "This was certainly news to us during the debate last night, and I can tell you it sent waves around Washington when he made that statement last night, but I understand they've backed off of that."