House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )
WASHINGTON — As House Republicans struggle to resolve their differences over how to deal with deep automatic budget cuts set to take effect in three weeks, Senate Democrats have largely sided with President Obama's call for a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases.
Obama traveled to Annapolis, Md., on Wednesday to meet with Senate Democrats at their private retreat and spent an hour working the room. Democrats appear to have embraced his call for a balanced approach, believing Americans prefer that to the austerity measures proposed by Republicans, according to Senate aides who asked not to be identified so they could talk about the internal discussions.
But Republicans remain torn over whether to stick with the automatic cuts as a trophy in their deficit busting crusade, or seek another approach that would avoid the deep hits to the military by shifting the burden onto Medicare and other domestic accounts. At the moment, the cuts are scheduled to be divided between military and domestic accounts.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and a bicameral group of GOP defense hawks proposed their own alternative Wednesday to protect the military: reduce the federal workforce by hiring only one new worker for every three vacancies over the next decade, a proposal that is certain to draw protest from Democrats, particularly in states with many federal workers.
In proposing the alternative, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) said Pentagon cuts must be prevented, otherwise "that's going to start costing lives."
Replacing the automatic cuts would be a daunting task. It would require Congress to find a way to cut or raise about $12 billion a month — about 5% of federal outlays. The GOP proposal unveiled Wednesday would create $85 billion in savings by cutting the federal workforce — enough to postpone the cuts for seven months, or through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
But devising an alternative is fraught because battle lines have hardened. Republicans refuse to consider the new tax revenue that Obama wants.
"The tax question has been settled," said House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), a reference to the year-end "fiscal cliff" deal that increased taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
The president has suggested generating new revenue by closing loopholes.
Democrats are also considering ending tax breaks for oil and gas companies and — borrowing a proposal from GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney — capping itemized deductions for wealthier households.
Top Senate Democrats, including Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray of Washington state, made presentations at the retreat. Alternative packages of varying sizes — to postpone the cuts for a few months or a year — were debated, but senators seemed to prefer a short-term approach. There was widespread agreement that revenue should be part of the equation.
Ten senators questioned the president on a range of topics. One was new Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono, who asked him to "focus very much on jobs."
The president replied that jobs had always been a focus, Hirono said.
Meanwhile, the GOP-led House approved a largely symbolic bill Wednesday that requires the administration to specify when its budget proposal would eliminate the deficit.
Republicans are preparing their own budget blueprint that promises to achieve balance in 10 years — an enormous undertaking that outside analysts have said would require substantial changes in the way the federal government operates and could harm the economy.
The nation routinely runs a deficit, and budgets have not balanced since 2000.
Despite Democratic objections that the bill was a "gimmick," 26 House Democrats supported it. The bill is expected to languish in the Senate, where Democrats hold the majority.