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The sudden importance of the 's' word

These two are talking, but they're running out of time.
These two are talking, but they're running out of time.Associated Press

Over the weekend, there was quite a bit of attention focused on competing plans to end the crises in Washington. Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) and Sen. Susan Collins' (R-Maine) plans were both rejected because they called on Democrats to make concessions in exchange for nothing. But what about Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) plan?

It didn't generate as much chatter, but McConnell, who began talks with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Saturday, quietly floated a deal of his own: Republicans would agree to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling, if only Democrats agreed to accept sequestration-level spending for a long while. Dems balked.

It's an issue that's been on the periphery lately, but right now, the dreaded "sequester" matters a great deal.

With a possible default on government obligations just days away, Senate Democratic leaders -- believing they have a political advantage in the continuing fiscal impasse -- refused Sunday to sign on to any deal that reopens the government but locks in budget cuts for next year.

The disagreement extended the stalemate that has kept much of the government shuttered for two weeks and threatens to force a federal default.

The core of the dispute is about spending, and how long a stopgap measure that would reopen the government should last. Democrats want the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration to last only through mid-November; Republicans want them to last as long as possible.

Exactly. It's been an open secret, but congressional Democrats have long planned to quickly make a transition -- as soon as the government is open and the debt ceiling is raised, Dems want to use bipartisan talks to replace the sequestration policy, or at least mitigate its effects. It's why there's been some debate about the calendar -- House Republicans originally planned to fund the government through mid-December, while Senate Democrats pushed for mid-November. The latter doesn't want to keep the deliberately painful sequestration policy around any longer than absolutely necessary.

And in the process, a new front in the larger fight has taken shape.

Indeed, on the Sunday shows, where Republicans dominated as they do every weekend, GOP senators eagerly championed the sequester policy that's hurting the country by design.

Sen. Rand Paul said Sunday that Republicans in the Senate are willing to compromise in the ongoing negotiations over the government shutdown and the looming debt ceiling, but cautioned that Democrats should not expect concessions on the already-negotiated sequester caps.

"The one thing I cannot accept, the one thing that I think is not even a compromise at all, is the Democrats' want to exceed the sequester caps, things that we've put into law to restrain spending already," the Kentucky Republican said on CNN.

Remember, Paul doesn't really understand what he's saying -- Democrats aren't trying to "exceed the sequester caps"; they're trying to limit how long these caps will be left in place.

It's not just Paul.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said Sunday that no Senate Republicans would vote to advance a government spending/debt-limit increase bill that replaces the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, which Senate Democrats are reportedly considering.

"I don't see one," Graham said on ABC's "This Week" when asked if there was an emerging deal. "If you break the spending caps, you're not going to get any Republicans in the Senate."

Again, I don't know why these senators are so confused by the basics. This isn't about "breaking the spending caps"; it's about negotiating how long the caps will be stuck where they are.

Indeed, I'd remind GOP lawmakers that the sequestration policy was intended to be such a deliberate disaster for the country that both sides would be desperate to strike a bipartisan budget deal. The sequester's cuts were so indiscriminately brutal that Republicans spent much of 2013 arguing that the policy was actually President Obama's idea.

In other words, getting rid of this blisteringly stupid policy should, in theory, be a bipartisan priority. Instead, Republicans are embracing it and demanding that Democrats leave it in place indefinitely.

It's not because the pointless budget cuts advance Republicans' policy goal; it's because the pointless budget cuts are the Republicans' policy goal. In the process, the sequester has morphed into a possible GOP concession, even though it's a policy they pretend not to like.