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Why Republicans think Obama’s back is against the wall on ‘sequester’

President Obama has spent the past week trying to put Republicans on the defensive over the sequester. But many Republicans believe the pressure is on him.

On a chilly day in Washington this week, Rep. Dave Schweikert (R) of Arizona put his hands over the grate of a burning fireplace just off the House floor while discussing the “sequester,” $85 billion in government spending cuts that will crimp the US economy from Friday until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

Despite the considerable efforts of President Obama, it seems, Congressman Schweikert was not feeling the heat.

For much of the past week, Mr. Obama has taken every opportunity to tell Americans that congressional (in other words, Republican) intransigence has failed to head off the sequester, which he has said will devastate the poor and the elderly, crush air travelers and school teachers, and pinch defense contractors and farmers.

Yet two half-hearted Senate bills to head off the sequester – one Republican and one Democratic – failed on Thursday to get the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster, and little is expected from Obama’s conclave with congressional leaders Friday.

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The unmistakable impression is that, despite the president’s haranguing, and despite polls that show Americans (at least those paying attention) side with Obama, many Republicans aren’t breaking a sweat.

The sequester, which amounts to a reduction of some 2.4 percent of the federal budget, “doesn’t light them up,” Schweikert says of his constituents. “It doesn’t get them emotionally engaged,” he adds, because with the bad economy, the idea of cutting back “is the reality they’ve been living in for the past several years.”

In fact, these Republicans argue that it is the president – not Republicans – who is in the hot seat.

A few months ago, during the “fiscal cliff” standoff, Obama vowed to allow all the Bush-era tax cuts to expire if Republicans didn’t play ball. Eventually the Republicans agreed to a deal that allowed the tax cuts to expire for the wealthiest Americans.

Now, many Republicans are happy to let the sequester take effect – acknowledging that the across-the-board cuts are not ideal, but eager for some substantial spending cuts actually to take effect. That means Obama must play ball before the end of March, when the cuts and government furloughs associated with the sequester will begin to take effect, they say.

“The president, from my point of view, ought to recognize, just like Republicans had to recognize a few weeks ago, that you’re not in the best position here, no matter what the polls say outside,” says Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma.

That means the president’s goal of replacing the cuts with a mix of new tax revenue and targeted spending cuts is unlikely to gain much traction among Republicans on Capitol Hill.

“Legislatively you’re going to have to deal with people who have a very different point of view,” says Representative Cole, who has worked with the administration on issues ranging from the fiscal cliff deal to the Violence Against Women Act. Republicans are “willing to deal with you on a lot of things, but they’re not willing to change their minds in terms of revenue this time around.”

The vast majority of congressional conservatives spent the week professing that they’ve got little problem holding the line on cuts that will hit nearly every federal government function beginning Friday.

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In one example, Rep. Pat Tiberi (R) of Ohio told reporters about how a TSA agent thanked him for holding the line on government spending even if it meant a few unpaid days off in the months to come.

On Thursday, the Senate made two last-ditch efforts to avoid the sequester, but without much conviction.

Democrats offered a bill to institute a minimum tax on the wealthiest Americans while reducing farm subsidies and defense spending. The 51-to-49 party-line vote fell well short of the filibuster-proof threshold.

The GOP plan, introduced by Sens. Pat Toomey ofPennsylvania and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, was something of a thumb in the eye to Obama. It offered to let the president direct the cuts to the lowest-value areas instead of the sequester’s across-the-board approach. Congress could have overridden the president only with a supermajority.

If the cuts are so bad, Republicans say, why doesn’t the president want the authority to head them off?

“I’d like to give him the flexibility” to avert the worst of the sequester, says Sen. Bob Corker (R) ofTennessee. “I don’t think he wants it.”

The bill failed 38 to 62, with nine Republicans, led by defense hawk Sen. John McCain of Arizona, voting against it.

Democrats saw the bill as a desperate maneuver by the GOP.

“They’ve tried to unite their caucus around a measure that does not turn off the cuts but rather tries to pass the buck to the president. It’s been fairly remarkable watching so many Republicans who so distrust this president suddenly willing to cede the power of the purse to him,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, the party’s third-ranking Senate leader, in a press conference Thursday. “This shows you no matter what they say, Republicans are actually quite worried about the unpopularity of these across-the-board cuts.”

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In the House, there are those like Republican Reps. Scott Rigell and Frank Wolf of Virginia who decry the coming cuts on the Defense Department and the nation’s intelligence agencies, respectively.

But with Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio putting the onus on the Senate to pass a sequester replacement, and with Senate Democrats unable to muster 60 filibuster-breaking votes for new tax revenue, congressional Republicans feel secure that the cuts they were promised as part of the debt-ceiling deal of 2011 will be the cuts they receive in the spring of 2013 – one way or another.

“This is a good thing. This is the first significant savings for the American taxpayer in a long, long – I’ve been here six years. This is the first time we’ve actually saved the American taxpayer some real money,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R) of Ohio on Wednesday. “That’s going to happen.”