By Matea Gold
Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — With little time left to strike a deal to head off Friday’s arrival of the sequester, conservative advocacy groups are urging congressional Republicans to stand firm and let the $85 billion in automatic cuts to this year’s federal budget go forward.
While most interest groups are aligned in their opposition to the cuts, influential organizations such as Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth and FreedomWorks are using the budget showdown to test the fealty of lawmakers to the small-government, anti-tax movement.
The automatic cuts may be a crude mechanism to cut federal spending, they argue, but they represent a move in the right direction. And those who don’t concur could find themselves in the crossfire in their next campaign.
“We’ve made our position on the sequester clear, which is that we want it to go through,” said Barney Keller, spokesman for the Club for Growth. “And I think members of Congress understand that we consider how they vote when determining whether or not to support opponents of them.”
The crisis spotlights how conservative advocacy groups are flexing their muscles after record spending by outside groups in the 2012 elections. Club for Growth reported spending nearly $18 million to back conservative candidates, according Federal Election Commission records, while FreedomWorks pumped $19 million into independent campaigns. Americans for Prosperity is organized as a tax-exempt social welfare group that does not have to report all its spending, but according to officials the group spent more than $190 million in the two-year election cycle, making it one of the biggest players in 2012.
Now they are reminding lawmakers where they stand.
FreedomWorks deployed 100 of its top activists to Capitol Hill earlier this week to press lawmakers to let the sequester go forward and has been mobilizing its members to call and email their representatives.
President Matt Kibbe said he believes support for allowing the sequester to proceed is “almost a consensus Republican stand now.”
“I think they feel that they have to keep the commitment they made in 2011, and, while they would rather rearrange the savings to be more rational, this is the best Congress can do,” he said.
If the GOP lawmakers were to relent on spending cuts, “it would be a disaster,” Kibbe added.
“Their credibility on spending restraint is strained, given the inability to get there over the past three years,” he said. “I think they need to demonstrate to fiscal conservatives that they’re willing to stand in the line of fire.”
Americans for Prosperity has been promoting a similar message through its “Spending Accountability Project,” deploying activists to three dozen congressional district offices around the country to urge lawmakers to allow the sequester to proceed.
The message, according to President Tim Phillips: “Government overspending is the number-one threat to economic prosperity.”
“We’ve got to get our own government’s house in order,” he said. “While this sequester is not anywhere near perfect, it is the first genuine step in that direction.”
Among those AFP is targeting are not only House Republicans but several Senate Democrats in states that President Obama lost for re-election in 2014: Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Max Baucus of Montana and Tim Johnson in South Dakota.
While Phillips said he does not expect to get their support on the sequester, AFP is using the issue to lay down a marker.
“We just want to let them know that they may choose to go with the president on this one,” he said, “but that’s not a good policy for them in the next two years, policy-wise and politically.