As anyone who has willed himself to pay attention to the latest budget crisis probably knows, the purpose of the “sequestration” — the $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts that kicked in on March 1 — was to pose a threat so dire that Congress would be certain to replace it with something better. Sequestration came into being in 2011, as a way to avoid the catastrophic debt default that Republicans were threatening if President Obama did not agree to deep cuts. It rested upon a political logic that seemed to make sense. Because the cuts were evenly divided between Democratic priorities (domestic spending) and Republican ones (military spending), leaders in both parties believed that they would find a better way to lock in the deficit reduction that the GOP was demanding.
Even so, most insiders privately assumed that if the two sides failed to come up with a replacement package, Republicans would probably cave first. That’s because sequestration doesn’t touch entitlement benefits from Medicare and Social Security that Democrats care about most, but it does hit the military especially hard, a concession Republicans had to make in lieu of agreeing to automatic tax increases. The fact that the Defense Department budget was already scheduled to shrink by $500 billion over the next decade made the additional $500 billion in sequestration cuts seem all the more unthinkable.