President Obama appears at the White House with firefighters and police… (Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty…)
WASHINGTON — President Obama on Tuesday pressured Republicans to prevent "meat cleaver" spending cuts from slashing crucial federal services, effectively starting the clock on the final scramble to stave off automatic reductions due to hit next week.
Standing with uniformed police officers and firefighters at the White House, Obama issued grave warnings about the impact of the across-the-board cuts on such public servants — cuts he and Congress approved in 2011 as a mechanism to force compromise on debt and deficit reduction.
Public safety, food inspections, border security, military readiness and education programs are all at stake if the nearly 8% reductions to defense and roughly 5% cuts to domestic programs are allowed to kick in, Obama said.
"If Congress allows this meat-cleaver approach to take place, it will jeopardize our military readiness; it will eviscerate job-creating investments in education and energy and medical research," Obama said. "These cuts are not smart. They are not fair. They will hurt our economy."
Rather than spur bipartisan compromise, the $1.2 trillion in potential spending cuts have led to another budget standoff in Washington, one that fits a strikingly familiar pattern. With a hard deadline of March 1 looming, Obama is warning of dire consequences and Republicans are accusing the president of lacking leadership.
The pattern may try public patience. But the White House has used it in the past to win battles with the Republican-led House over payroll taxes, student loan interest rates, the debt ceiling and income taxes. In each fight, Obama won concessions by focusing on a deadline, taking a popular position and backing Republicans into a corner.
In this case, Obama and his Democratic allies are pushing a proposal that would delay the budget pain for 10 more months, replacing the across-the-board cuts with more targeted reductions as well as new tax revenue collected from taxpayers earning more than $1 million a year.
Republicans, however, have rejected any proposal that raises taxes and have sought an alternative that relies only on reducing federal spending. The Senate is expected to hold largely symbolic votes on both approaches when Congress returns next week from a weeklong Presidents Day recess.
The final round has 10 days to play out, but some say it's likely to come with a new ending. After agreeing to raise tax rates on top earners in a year-end budget deal, breaking their decades-long pledge to refuse tax increases, many Republicans are in no mood to bend to the president's will.
"Just last month, the president got his higher taxes on the wealthy, and he's already back for more," House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Tuesday. "The American people understand that the revenue debate is now closed."
The current fight is just part of the larger debate over reaching an elusive deal that addresses the long-term drivers of the nation's debt.
The parties seemed no closer on that front Tuesday. Obama hammered Republicans for rebuking what he calls his balanced approach and contended that they'd "rather have these cuts go into effect than close a single tax loophole for the wealthiest Americans. Not one."
Republicans pushed back by asserting that they want to simplify the tax code, eliminating deductions and loopholes, but want to ensure that additional revenue raised is used toward deficit reduction, not new spending.
Two veteran budget hands, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, inserted themselves into the standoff Tuesday, proposing a second long-term debt reduction plan.
Bowles, a Democrat and White House chief of staff under President Clinton; and Simpson, a Republican former senator from Wyoming, headed the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which devised a wide-ranging plan in 2010. Although the full commission did not adopt the plan, the two co-chairmen since have become advocates for bipartisan compromise that uses tax increases, revenue and entitlement reforms to lower the debt.
Their new, four-part proposal would build on the budget-cutting steps the White House and Congress already have enacted. The pair called for entitlement and tax reform to produce about $2.4 trillion in deficit reduction and replace the $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts.
Congressional Republicans said Tuesday they were steeling themselves for the cuts to kick in and preparing to blame the president and Democrats for any damage.
"Too little, too late," said Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, of the president's remarks. "He knows we're not going to increase taxes. So it's all political."
Some top administration officials now believe that the March 1 cuts are inevitable and that Republicans won't be ready to deal until their constituents begin to suffer — and complain about — the consequences.