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Sequestration becomes partisan game of political chicken on the Hill

Top congressional Republicans on Sunday predicted that deep, across-the-board spending cuts will take effect March 1, dismissing a Democratic proposal to avert them as dead on arrival and setting the stage for a high-stakes political game of chicken — just as Congress' weeklong recess gets under way.

Senate Democrats have proposed a plan that would cancel about $85 billion in defense and domestic spending cuts this year and replace it with a mix of cuts and new taxes — a plan some Republicans say is a nonstarter.

"These spending cuts are going to go through on March 1," Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican, said on CNN's "State of the Union." "Their taxes are off the table."

Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican, said President Obama already got his revenues in the year-end deal that allowed the George W. Bush-era tax cuts to expire on incomes in excess of $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for families.

"You can't get that and then come right back and say, 'Well, the wealthier need to pay more in taxes,'" Mr. Rogers said later on the program.

The White House last week trumpeted the dire consequences if the cuts take place as scheduled — tens of thousands of children getting kicked off the Head Start program, for example, and the prospect of fewer airport screeners and food inspectors on the job.

The so-called sequester would chop $85 billion from defense and domestic spending this year, absent action from Congress, which temporarily delayed the cuts from going into effect at the beginning of January.

They were crafted during the debt-ceiling negotiations in the summer of 2011 effectively as a doomsday mechanism: a combination of military and domestic spending cuts so unpalatable for Democrats and Republicans that a supercommittee would be forced to find an alternative to avert the approximately $1 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years.

But the supercommittee failed, and Congress eventually passed an eleventh-hour plan to delay the cuts from taking place at the beginning of January.

The difference now is that no automatic tax increases will kick in simultaneously, as was the case with the looming expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts Jan. 1 — putting Democrats in a much different negotiating position than they were a couple of months ago.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said Sunday he thinks the country will avoid the sequester, though he was less defiant than was Mr. Barrasso in predicting the opposite.

"The president of the United States is doing everything he can to not let this happen," Mr. McDonough said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "We need to work with our friends [on] the Hill."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, also predicted that sequestration will be avoided, citing a "sea change" in political dynamics that will see both sides pinch toward the middle.

"[W]hether it's right on the eve of sequestration or if, God forbid, it has to take effect for a few days, the devastating effects will be so strong," Mr. Schumer said. "The president will be out there on his bully pulpit that I believe, just like on the 'fiscal cliff,' Republicans will come onboard. They have no choice."

Indeed, Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said on "Fox News Sunday" that letting the sequester occur would be worse than acceding to additional taxes.

"I think we should in a bipartisan fashion stop sequestration before — in the words of the secretary of defense — it destroys the Pentagon," Mr. Graham said. "But we can cut $1.2 trillion over the next decade without destroying the Defense Department if we choose."

Mr. Graham suggested putting Mr. Obama's health care overhaul — his signature domestic achievement — on the table.

"If you want to look at ways to find $1.2 trillion in savings over the next decade, let's look at Obamacare," he said. "Let's don't destroy the military and just cut blindly across the board."

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said he would be open to the idea of closing tax loopholes to raise revenue, but that it is still incumbent on Mr. Obama to step forward and lead on the issue.

"Republicans deserve blame; I'll take some blame for it," Mr. McCain said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "But the president of the United States is supposed to lead. Why doesn't he call people over, and we sit down and prevent the sequestration from happening and fulfill the comment he made during the campaign?"

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