Whose idea was the sequester? And does it matter?

The Republicans point to Bob Woodward's book as evidence it's the 'Obamaquester.' Democrats counter with a Boehner slideshow that just resurfaced. The public is left scratching its head. 

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama speaks about the 'sequester' Tuesday at the White House in Washington, as he stands with emergency responders, a group of workers the White House says could be affected if state and local governments lose federal money as a result of budget cuts.

Debate is raging in Washington over the origins of the “sequester” – the deep, almost-across-the-board federal spending cuts that go into effect March 1 if Congress doesn’t act.

Exhibit A is Bob Woodward’s book, “The Price of Politics,” which describes how top aides to President Obama brought the idea to Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada in the summer of 2011, when Congress was grappling with the debt ceiling.

The sequester proposal became part of the agreement that allowed the government to keep borrowing to pay its bills – and, as has been repeated ad infinitum, it was never meant to go into effect. It was supposed to be so beyond the pale that it would force the White House and Congress to come up with a deficit-reduction deal that was more finely honed.

But Republicans have latched onto Mr. Woodward’s book as the smoking gun.

Aha, they say, the sequester is Mr. Obama’s baby. They’ve tried to get people to call it the “Obama sequester” or even the “Obamaquester.” It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but it’s more than the Democrats have devised.

Exhibit B is a July 31, 2011, PowerPoint presentation found by John Avlon of The Daily Beast in an old e-mail, reported on Wednesday. The slideshow was put together by House Speaker John Boehner’s office and the GOP’s House-based think tank, the Republican Policy Committee, and describes a “new sequestration process” that would cut spending across the board if the cuts weren’t made by other means.

So there, say Democrats, the sequester is really a Republican idea.

The bottom line, concludes FactCheck.org, is that it doesn’t matter. Both parties are responsible for this puppy, the fact-checking site’s report says, because they both voted for it.

“The reality is that the pending cuts would not be possible had both Democrats and Republicans not supported the legislation that included them,” FactCheck says.

The sequester was part of the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, which passed the House with 269 “yea” votes – 174 Republicans and 95 Democrats. In the 100-seat Senate, Democrats made up most of the 74 "yea" votes, but there were 28 Republicans in that majority, as well.

Still, reminders of that bipartisan vote haven’t stopped the blame game. In an opinion article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, Speaker Boehner asserts once again that Obama “invented” the sequester, and that the president’s warnings about its fast-approaching implementation are ironic, given that it is a product of the president’s own “failed leadership.”

Boehner acknowledges that both congressional Republicans and Democrats “reluctantly” went along with the sequester, as part of the BCA, which kept the nation from defaulting on its debt. Furthermore, the sequester would not have come into play if Congress’s bipartisan “supercommittee” – another creation of the BCA – had fulfilled its task: coming up with $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years.

Boehner and Obama have put out conflicting versions of what each proposed behind closed doors in the summer of 2011, creating an endless loop of “he said, he said.” The public is left with little to go on in assessing the mess.

The reality is, most Americans don’t get what’s going on. The word “sequester” is hardly a part of everyday discourse. A poll published by The Hill newspaper on Feb. 11 found that only 36 percent of voters know what the sequester is.

Another 38 percent thought they knew, but picked the wrong answer. Twenty percent thought it had something to do with the debt limit. Eight percent thought it referred to a forthcoming ruling by the Supreme Court on the federal budget.

“Such a case would come as news to Chief Justice John Roberts,” the Hill quipped.

This widespread public confusion creates a big opening for public relations. Thus the Boehner op-ed. Ditto Obama’s event on Tuesday at the White House, where he surrounded himself with emergency responders and called on Congress to take a “balanced approach” that includes additional tax revenues – and keeps federal programs running and workers on the job.

The Republican effort to brand the latest Beltway crisis as the “Obama sequester” – by repeating that phrase over and over – should not be dismissed, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Ms. Jamieson agrees that it’s a game, but it’s still important.

The Democrats have not effectively developed a line and repeated it as often [in a way] that offers the alternative narrative,” she says. “The nature of repetition is such that when we hear something repeated and unrebutted, we’re likely to believe it.”

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