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As clock ticks on 'sequester,' Washington runs short on ideas

President Obama takes to the bully pulpit again to blame Republicans even before sequester spending cuts begin. He's positioning himself for the debate to come, not to prevent the cuts from starting March 1.

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What the speaker didn’t say is that he gets in as much trouble with factions of his own party as with the White House. So it may be that any eventual resolution of the sequester could come down again to two old Senate hands – the Republican minority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky and Vice President Joe Biden, whose years as a senator schooled him in the back-room art of deal-making.

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But for now, the klieg lights are on Obama, and he sees the inevitable approaching: The sequester will go into effect, and he is angling for political advantage.

On the broader range of issues, including immigration reform and gun control as well as fiscal matters, the president has faced cries of frustration from bipartisan-minded Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill that Obama is not reaching out to them. The idea is that these senators could provide cover for other Senate Republicans, and eventually Republicans in the House.

“I view this as a time to turn the page and take a fresh approach from both the White House and the congressional perspective and try to work together on these difficult political issues that have to be addressed,” Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio told Politico recently. “Doing it at the level of our leadership and the president hasn’t worked.”

The Democrats have a 55-to-45 majority in the Senate, but need to reach a filibuster-proof 60 votes to pass major legislation.

On the sequester, Obama need look no further than public opinion to see who has the advantage. The president is hanging on just above 50 percent in job approval, compared with Congress, which is mired in the teens. Capitol Hill gives Obama an easy foil.

But he could be taking a risk in hanging back and hectoring congressional Republicans as the clock ticks down to deep cuts, and not being seen as rolling up his sleeves and negotiating.

How risky is this for Obama?

“Clearly, I think he believes that his public strategy will help him get a better outcome,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “Republicans certainly don’t agree.”

The real question is how Obama’s approach affects the Republican-controlled House.

“There is a risk in drawing such bright lines against the Republicans in the House that you impede progress legislatively,” Mr. Schier says. “I don’t quite see what the public benefit is in being so obstreperous toward Congress. It’s not like you’re going to mobilize public opinion to get the House Republicans to change their stripes.”

It’s an unusual strategy, says Schier, but as Obama starts his second term, it shows he’s confident.


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