Obama presses Congress for stopgap sequester fix

During a news conference at the White House on Tuesday, President Barack Obama urged Congress to put forth a short-term plan to avoid automatic budget cuts that will hit next Friday. (The Washington Post)
February 19, 2013

President Obama urged Congress on Tuesday to pass a measure to delay for the rest of the year a series of automatic cuts to defense and other spending that is to take effect March 1 .

Speaking with fresh urgency at the White House, surrounded by firefighters and other emergency personnel, Obama said the automatic cuts, known as the sequester, would do great damage to the economy and must be avoided.

“It won’t help the economy. It won’t create jobs. It will visit hardship on a whole lot of people,” the president said. The cuts, he added, will “add hundreds of thousands of Americans to the unemployment rolls.”

He aimed much of his remarks at Republican lawmakers, who have repeatedly rejected any plan to stave off the sequester that includes tax hikes.

“So now Republicans in Congress face a simple choice,” Obama said. “Are they willing to compromise to protect vital investment in education, health care, national security and all the jobs that depend on them? Or would they rather put hundreds of thousands of jobs and our entire economy at risk just to protect a few special interest tax loopholes that benefit only the wealthiest Americans and the biggest corporations? That’s the choice.”

Washington appears increasingly resigned to allowing the sequester to go ahead. The cuts, totalling $1.2 trillion over a decade, are indiscriminate and affect most domestic and defense programs — though they spare much of the social safety net.

Passed by Congress and signed by the president in 2011, the threatened cuts were supposed to force lawmakers to come to an agreement to reduce federal borrowing. But so far they have not able to do so.

Obama said the sequester would take a “meat cleaver approach” to reducing the deficit at the cost of hurting the poor and middle class — an approach he said would even “jeopardize our military readiness.”

Republicans rejected the speech as a baldly political attempt to shift blame for the spending cuts to the GOP. They said Obama’s preferred solution — alternative spending cuts paired with tax hikes — was unacceptable.

“The president offered no credible plan that can pass Congress — only more calls for higher taxes,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said. “Just last month, the president got his higher taxes on the wealthy, and he’s already back for more. The American people understand that the revenue debate is now closed.”

Obama favors replacing the sequester with a combination of spending cuts in automatic programs like Medicare and new tax revenue, raised by scaling back tax breaks that benefit the wealthy and select industries, such as energy firms.

With a sweeping deal unlikely to come to fruition in two weeks, Obama is pushing for a short-term measure to delay the start of the sequester — such as one proposed last week by Senate Democrats that would use alternative spending cuts and tax hikes to postpone the sequester through the end of the year.

Republicans argue that Obama has focused too much on raising taxes to solve the nation’s debt problem and not enough on cutting spending. While many Republicans are not happy with the depth of defense cuts triggered by the sequester, they are more sanguine about locking in the sharp cuts to domestic programs that they have long sought.

“The American people have worked too hard, for too long, rebuilding from one crisis to see their elected officials cause another,” Obama said in his remarks. “It seems like every three months around here, there’s some manufactured crisis.”

While the reductions — the first of $1.2 trillion set to occur over a decade — may start March 1, they would only be felt over time. The cuts ultimately could be devastating for government contractors, civilian employees and the overall economy, which economists say could lose 750,000 jobs as a result.

The Senate Democrats’ $110 billion stopgap would generate budget savings from spending cuts — including ending direct payments to farmers as part of agricultural subsidies and trimming defense spending — and a new minimum level of taxation for households earning more than $2 million a year.

The House passed a bill last year to eliminate the defense cuts in the sequester and, in their place, to make harsher cuts in spending on domestic programs.

Neither approach is likely to gain political support in the next two weeks — with lawmakers still on Presidents’ Day recess until next week.

Zachary A. Goldfarb is policy editor at The Washington Post.
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