That suggested an obvious design for the sequester: Half taxes, which Republicans hate, and half spending cuts to programs Democrats care about. But Republicans refused to vote for anything with taxes in it — even though the point of the policy was for both sides to fear it. So they made a concession to the Democrats: If the sequester was to be all spending cuts — $984 billion, to be exact, which, when added to lower debt payments, totaled $1.2 trillion in reductions — then the spending cuts would leave the main Democratic priorities untouched.
And so the sequester doesn't touch Medicaid, Social Security or Pell grants. It exempts most programs for low-income Americans, such as food stamps. Veterans' benefits are home free, as are federal retirement benefits. Medicare providers see cuts, but Medicare beneficiaries don't. And fully half of the cuts come from the military — a huge reduction in defense spending that Democrats couldn't dream about achieving any other way.
That's not to say Democrats will love the sequester. It slashes deep into everything from the National Institutes of Health to the Office of Vocational and Adult Education to the Environmental Protection Agency. Worse, the cuts are done with a cleaver rather than a scalpel. Rather than giving agencies control over how to apportion the spending cuts, every affected program simply sees the same reduction. Democrats don't much like that. But given the sequester's disproportionate focus on the military, it's even worse for Republicans.
"Both parties dislike the sequester, and they should," says Bob Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "It's a terrible way to cut budgets. But it's not clear to me why Democrats would hate it more and back down first relative to Republicans."