Republican leaders in Congress on Friday pushed President Obama to engage in negotiations to defuse an automatic spending cut set to hit the federal budget in January, as the GOP steps up efforts to force Obama to own deep defense cuts both parties had agreed to in last summer’s debt deal.
In the letter, House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Senate Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) accused the White House of failing to plan for the impact of the $110 billion cut set to hit defense and domestic programs in January.
“Instead of ignoring the need to address this critical issue, we would respectfully request that you and your senior staff engage constructively with both parties to find common ground,” they wrote.
President Obama and top Democrats have said they also wish to avoid the across-the-board spending cuts — referred to on Capitol Hill as “the sequester.” But they have insisted they will only do so as part of a broad long-term deal to reduce the deficit that includes both cuts, and new revenues from higher taxes on the wealthy.
“I would remind you that the sequester was something that was actually passed with the strong support of Republicans, in both the House and the Senate. And the reason for this is that it’s an action-forcing mechanism to force Congress to confront the difficult budget challenges,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Friday, calling for a “balanced approach” on the deficit.
The automatic budget cuts were designed to be painful, a consequence intended to compel agreement on a long-term deficit reduction in the bipartisan Congressional supercommittee.
But the supercommittee disbanded last year without reaching an agreement to cut deficits by at least $1.2 trillion, and now real negotiations about how to undo the sequester will likely not occur after the November election.
Republicans are hoping the potential defense cuts could hurt Obama in states with major military presences. Virginia Republicans have this week taken to calling the sequester “Obama’s defense cuts” in advance of his Friday visit to the Hampton Roads, home to a major Naval base.
In their Friday letter, Republican leaders accused Obama of “holding our troops and other important programs hostage in order to foist tax increases on small businesses” because Democrats have insisted tax revenue be a part of a long-term deal to reduce the debt.
They also said they were “troubled” by a National Journal report that administration officials late last month recommended Senate Democrats hold a vote to delay the cuts by six months — and simultaneously extend Bush-era tax cuts, which will also expire in January, only on income up to $250,000.
Republicans want to extend the tax cuts for all income levels. Tying the tax vote to the delay of the automatic cuts could force Republicans to take a vote against defusing the cuts.
They said such a strategy would “actually be more harmful to our national security and domestic priorities” by potentially forcing agencies to take the entire $110 billion cut over only half a year.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid’s chief of staff said the White House never suggested delaying the sequester.
“Instead of pulling political stunts, Republicans should spend their time working up the courage to finally break with Grover Norquist and the Tea Party, and join with Democrats to forge a balanced deficit reduction plan that asks millionaires to pay their fair share,” Chief of Staff David Krone said.
“Until Republicans find the courage to compromise, we will be sticking to the spending cuts that both Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly voted for last August,” he said.