Obama visits Va. shipbuilder in warning call on sequester’s impact

President Obama pinned the blame for the sequester impasse on Republican lawmakers during a speech at a shipyard in Newport News, Va., on Tuesday. (The Washington Post)

 President Obama visited a nuclear submarine factory here Tuesday to warn that allowing deep cuts to domestic and defense spending to take effect on Friday will have severe consequences, blaming Republicans for failing to compromise to avert the automatic reductions.

Obama spoke before hundreds of workers, including several wearing hard hats, at Newport News Shipbuilding’s supplemental module outfitting facility to illustrate the human cost of the $85 billion in spending cuts, known as the sequester.

“This work and hundreds of thousands of jobs are currently in jeopardy because of politics in Washington,” Obama said. “In a few days, Congress might allow a series of immediate painful arbitrary budget cuts to take place.”

The campaign-style rally at a factory that helps build sections of Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines was the president’s latest bid to raise public alarm over the cuts. He has demanded that Congress support a mix of higher tax revenues and targeted spending cuts to Medicare and other social programs to replace the across-the-board sequester.

“Instead of cutting out . . . special-interest tax loopholes and tax breaks, what the sequester does is use a meat-cleaver approach,” Obama declared, repeating a phrase he has used recently to describe the sequester. “The impact of this policy won’t be felt overnight, but it will be real.”

Republicans have refused to consider raising taxes as part of a sequester deal and have called instead for cuts to health-care programs.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) decried Obama’s trip as political theatrics.

“I don’t think the president’s focused on trying to find a solution to the sequester,” Boehner said Tuesday. “The president has been traveling all over the country, and today going down to Newport News in order to use our military men and women as a prop in yet another campaign rally to support his tax hikes.”

The president’s stop in a Hampton Roads community that relies heavily on defense contracting follows a recent Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll that showed that 55 percent of Americans believe the sequester cuts would have a “major effect” on the U.S. military.

Obama told the crowd that 90,000 civilians in Virginia who work for the Pentagon would face unpaid furloughs if the forced spending cuts are made. He described a litany of problems including less financial aid for college students and reduced early childhood education for young children.

He also expressed skepticism about a proposal being considered by Republicans that would keep the $85 billion in cuts this fiscal year but give the administration more flexibility in where and how to slash program budgets. 

“There’s no smart way to do that,” Obama said. “I do not want to choose between, ‘Let’s see, do I close funding for the disabled kid or the poor kid? Do I close this Navy ship yard or some other one?’”

And even as he has repeatedly slammed Republicans for failing to compromise with him — accusing them on Tuesday of threatening to drag the country back into recession — Obama professed that he was “not interested in playing a blame game.”

“At this point, all I’m interested in is solving problems,” he said.

Many Republicans have expressed doubt about the impact of the sequester, saying the government should be able to find ways to generate budget savings without interfering too much in the lives of Americans.

A small number of Republicans, however, have shown growing support for Obama’s position on taxes, even while GOP leadership says it will not consider additional tax hikes as an option. 

 “I believe that a position that says we will reject a proposal if it has even a dollar increase in revenue, I don’t think that’s a wise position, and I don’t hold that value,” said Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), who represents part of Newport News and flew here on Air Force One along with Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.). 

“Our country has a spending problem. We need to grow our economy and raise revenues that way,” he added. “I also believe that revenue has to come up a bit, first by growing the economy, but also by tax reform, which also includes eliminating lobbyist-inspired, lobbyist-written loopholes. I am in favor of that.”

 Obama is scheduled to meet with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) later Tuesday to discuss immigration policy, but the sequester is also expected to come up.

 Graham said in a CNN interview Monday that he might agree to raising up to $600 billion in new tax revenue by overhauling the tax code as part of a sweeping deal that would also make changes in entitlement programs and turn off the sequester.

Asked about those comments Tuesday, however, Graham clarified that he would not support higher revenues purely as a way to offset the sequester. Instead, he said he was repeating a long-held position that he would consider raising taxes as part of a broad package that also tackled entitlement reforms.

“No revenue to fix sequestration,” Graham said. “The next time I do revenue will be to do entitlement reform. We don’t need any more money to run this government. We need more money to pay down debt, lower tax rates, and we need entitlement reform to save the country from bankruptcy.”

In Newport News, Obama praised Rigell for attending the event.

“I’ve got to give Scott Rigell credit,” Obama said during his speech. “He’s one of your Republican congressman here today. That’s not always healthy for a Republican to do. The reason he’s doing it is he knows it’s important to you. And he’s asked his colleagues in the House to consider closing tax loopholes instead of allowing these automatic cuts to go through.”

 But, Obama added, “there are too many Republicans in Congress right now who refuse to compromise even an inch when it comes to closing tax loopholes and special-interest tax breaks. And that’s what’s holding things up right now.”

Nakamura reported from Washington. Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

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