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Sequester Kicking In After Failure to Communicate

President Barack Obama addressed sequestration in a press conference from the White House today. “This is not going to be an apocalypse. … It’s just dumb. And it’s going to hurt,” he said, referring to the $85 billion in cuts to government programs set to kick in Friday evening.

There was much discussion in Washington this week on whether the impending failure to avert $85 billion in cuts to government programs — the sequester — resulted from a failure to communicate.

Did the White House and congressional Republicans not fully understand each other’s bottom lines in the negotiations leading to the impasse that became official Friday?

The sequester took effect because Democrats called for new tax revenues and Republicans demanded there be none.

The debate over when those positions became clear was fueled by a report from the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward saying the White House did not tell Republicans early on it would insist the $85 billion in sequester cuts be replaced partially by new tax revenues.

Woodward’s report said the call for revenues not been the original White House position and amounted to “moving the goalposts.”

That sparked a well-publicized flurry of heated emails between Woodward and the head of the White House National Economic Council, Gene Sperling. (If you haven’t been watching cable news, the Post’s Paul Farhi has a nice wrap of these odd developments here.)

But some Republicans maintain it was not always clear that President Obama’s call for a “balanced approach” to replacing the sequester was a non-negotiable demand for revenues from closing tax loopholes.

They say it was at least unexpected given that Republicans had agreed in January to a $600 billion, 10-year income tax hike on the wealthiest Americans.

“They never said [tax demands would end there] but the expectation was you got what you asked for, you got ‘millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share,’ as you always wanted,” Don Stewart, Deputy Chief of Staff for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, told me this week.

Stewart says when the sequester was negotiated in 2011, “they asked for part of the [make-up] to be spending cuts and [part] tax hikes. We said no.” Republicans wanted all spending cuts.

That negotiation was aimed at removing the recurring fight over raising the federal debt limit from broader deficit reduction talks.

“So [Republicans] said, in exchange for a larger debt ceiling [agreement], the sequester would be made up only of cuts,” Stewart said.

That’s not the way principal deputy White House press secretary Josh Earnest recalls those early negotiations with Republicans.

“Remember, the sequester also was supposed to kick in on Jan. 1, as part of the ‘fiscal cliff.’ They don’t [have an argument] simply because on Jan. 1 we bought down the sequester for a few weeks in a balanced way — half revenues, half spending. It was balanced and split and that’s the approach we’ve taken all along,” Earnest told me Friday. “We never said [sequester could be eliminated] with only spending cuts. Unless they never read the newspaper, used the Internet, or listened to the radio. I’m not sure why they’re saying that.”

No matter what was said — or understood — in the past, the across-the-board sequester cuts now are law.

Earnest says the White House expects that ultimately enough congressional Republicans will agree to an arrangement on revenue from closing tax loopholes that will restore the government-wide spending cuts.

But he says he also expects that won’t happen until after some government workers and contractors lose days of work and some people who rely on government services don’t get them because of the sequester.

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