WASHINGTON — When White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that President Obama would be open to fixing flight delays caused by the sequestration, Capitol Hill Democrats were caught of guard.
After all, they'd been fighting with Republicans for months to replace the across-the-board cuts, with the hope that the President would only agree to a broad package to undo the sequester, the mandatory set of across-the-board cuts that had affected the Federal Aviation Administration, and virtually every other federal agency. Picking and choosing what gets fixed and what doesn't would send the wrong message and wipe out the line Democrats had been struggling to hold.
That seems to be just what happened: On Friday, after Carney sounded the retreat, the House moved quickly to pass a fix to eliminate furloughs for the country's air traffic controllers in a sweeping 361-41 vote.
The Administration's stance is that Obama had nothing to do with the lopsided vote. An official noted that the sequestration fix passed with big numbers of Democratic votes, a sign that Democrats on Capitol Hill weren't ready to take the political risk of letting flight delays persist in order to drive the GOP to the negotiating table.
But Democrats say their hands were tied — in part by the president. And the breach is the latest sign that the party has lost control of its message on what the White House and its allies viewed as a clear, if slow and painful, path to political victory, in which Republicans would be punished next fall for insisting on the cuts.
"It's a bad vote and almost all of us voted for it because we don't want people hurt or inconvenience at the airport. But the precedent is that you are identifying priorities: 'I don't want passengers inconvenienced' is to some extent a greater priority than Pell grants, Meals on Wheels, Head Start," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, who voted for the fix. "It's a precedent that speaks more to the priorities of Congress and the Administration in terms of who is getting hurt by the sequester."
This week was not the first time Democrats on the Hill have been bewildered by White House moves on the sequester. A month ago, while all the talk about sequestration was about the canceled White House tours — another fight Republicans viewed as a triumph — a top Democratic Senate aide joked, "Have they been messaging on the sequester?"
"I like to think they have some master plan they just haven't told us about yet," one House Democratic aide told BuzzFeed Friday.
This week, while the White House's dire sequestration predictions appeared finally to be coming true, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Obama was open to legislation that only solved the flight delays caused by the budget cuts. While he also said the plan was not the White House preference, Carney's signal that the White House was ready to go for the plan to fix flight delays caused faces to hit palms on Capitol Hill.
"It was the wrong move," said a Democratic member of Congress. "It kind baffled us."
Other members were fretting that passing the quick fix would mean other cuts would be soon forgotten and the administration was not doing enough to fight the sequester.
"My worry is by doing this, it makes it more difficult to fix everything else. I hope I'm wrong on that," said Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, who voted against the bill. "I think sequestration is so outrageous, it represents an all time high in recklessness and stupidity and I think it's worth a fight. Are we going to let the Republicans cherry pick what they are going to fix and not going to fix? I mean these guys don't give a damn about the poor."
Republicans claimed victory before the vote even occurred, with a note to members from Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Friday morning, after the Senate passed the fix by unanimous consent Thursday night.
"Consider that the Democrats' opening position was they would only replace the sequester with tax increases. By the first of this week Senator Reid proposed replacing the whole sequester with phony war savings," he wrote. "And by last night, Senate Democrats were adopting our targeted "cut this, not that" approach. This victory is in large part a result of our standing together under the banner of #Obamaflightdelays."
However a Democratic aide said there was a bright side to voting on a sequester fix, giving the party the opportunity to shine a light on how cuts are hurting the poor, seniors, and children. It would give them another opening to call on Republicans to go to a budget conference to fix the sequester entirely.
That was evidenced on the House floor earlier Friday, when Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer gave an impassioned speech as to why he would oppose the bill.
"Education, Head Start, 70,000 children will be kicked out of Head Start," he said. "Nothing in this bill deals with them. Furloughs to cause delays in processing retirement for disability claims, nothing in this bill deals with them."
In the briefing room, Carney was peppered with questions about the bill and why the White House would accept fixing flight delays without restoring funding to Head Start. Carney said they'd like to see that kind of funding restored too, and blamed the GOP for why that wasn't happening.
"We call on Congress to show as much concern for others who are being harmed. Other Americans, hard-working, middle-class families who are being hurt by this. Hard- working communities that depend on defense industries and should not have been dealt this blow of arbitrary cuts that cause furloughs and layoffs and job terminations because Congress decided — the Republicans decided and they said it publicly, 'You know what? Everything we said about how terrible the sequester's going to be? Never mind. It's a victory. It's a tea party victory.'"
But Carney said Obama is not prepared to hold fliers "hostage" in the hopes of forcing Republicans to act.
House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Joe Crowley, one of the few 'no' votes on the change, said he understood the concerns of passengers (noting his flight last weekend was also delayed) but this was taking the easy way out.
"I think when you begin to take away some of the chokehold pieces of it that are publically difficult, you start whittling away at this and sequestration itself becomes less onerous," he said. "You never address the parts that aren't seen like the head start kids that can't go to school anymore, Meals on Wheels that aren't delivered to Seniors."
Crowley said that there would be more trouble down the road that would "politically difficult to swallow" but Congress needed to approach the sequester in a "holistic" way.
"Today it's FAA, tomorrow it'll be something else that my Republican colleagues don't like...I felt myself the effects sequestration on my way back to Washington, but that was the consequence of us not being able to make a deal," he added. "I do think there will be other things that will come up that people are going to want to approach in a piecemeal way, and that's just not how we should be dealing with this.