President Obama stepped before the television cameras Tuesday morning to urge congressional Republicans to avoid the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts scheduled to hit the government at the beginning of March.
With Congress out of town this week and Mr. Obama back in Washington after a weekend golf vacation in Florida, the president pressed his case for passing more tax increases instead of relying solely on spending cuts as Republicans want in order to produce enough deficit reduction over the next 10 years to avoid the so-called “sequester” cuts affecting both defense and non-defense programs set to kick in March 1.
The sequester, Mr. Obama said, “won’t help the economy, won’t create jobs, and will mean hardship for a whole lot of people.” Mr. Obama invited emergency “first-responders” to join him on the stage to illustrate the types of jobs that are on the line if Congress fails to avoid the $85 billion in cuts.
If Congress allows the “meat-cleaver” cuts to take effect, he said, it will affect military readiness and reduce government services across the country. He warned that thousands of teachers and educators would be laid off, parents would have to find child care for their children and the cuts would hit the FBI and other emergency responders particularly hard.
“This is not an abstraction,” he said. “People will lose their jobs. The unemployment rate might tick up again.”
House Republicans counter that it was Mr. Obama himself who first suggested the sequester cuts — as a means to force lawmakers to agree to more a more measured deficit-reduction plan — and that the House has already passed a spending reduction plan while the Democratic majority in the Senate has yet to act.
“His sequester is the wrong way to cut spending,” GOP House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement after Mr. Obama spoke. The Democrats’ “new-found concern about the president’s sequester is appreciated, but words alone won’t avert it.”
“Replacing the president’s sequester will require a plan to cut spending that will put us on the path to a budget that is balanced in 10 years,” he continued. “To keep these first-responders on the job, what other spending is the president willing to cut?”
If the sequester cuts go into effect, economists have warned that hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country could be lost. The White House said Monday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would eliminate funding for state and local grants that support firefighter positions and state and local emergency management personnel, hampering the government’s ability to respond to natural disasters and other emergencies.
Before Congress left for a weeklong recess, defense-hawk Republicans furiously filed bills in the House and Senate to cancel the defense cuts and replace them with savings from attrition in the federal workforce.
But other Republicans have said they are ready to swallow the defense cuts in order to get the domestic cuts, and argue that the Defense Department can handle the trims.
Mr. Obama and most Democrats don’t want to see the domestic cuts and warn that slicing the budget so indiscriminately could send the still-struggling economic recovery off the rails.
Republicans are still upset over agreeing to a deal on New Year’s Day to avoid the first sequester deadline that relied on tax increases rather than cuts to entitlement programs.
Mr. Obama has proposed a deficit-reduction plan he says is balanced because it increases taxes and overhauls entitlement programs, though he has been very short on the specifics of the spending cuts. He also said Congress should pursue a plan to close tax loopholes for the “well-off and the well-connected” so Washington can find the revenue to pay down the deficit without raising tax rates.
“I’ve offered a balanced approach to deficit reduction,” he said. “I’m willing to cut more spending that we don’t need, get rid of programs that aren’t working. I’ve laid out specific reforms to our entitlement programs.”