Deadline legislating is once again the talk of Washington, with all sides now demanding an end to the automatic spending sequesters — even though just a few weeks ago many of them seemed to be bracing, or in some cases even welcoming, the $85 billion in cuts divided between defense and domestic needs.
President Obama's senior advisers huddled Wednesday with leaders in the defense industry to try to enlist them in his push to raise taxes to replace some of the cuts, while a group of defense-hawk Republicans filed bills in the House and Senate to cancel the defense cuts and replace them with savings from attrition in the federal workforce.
"I visited with our top leaders and they have told me we have gone past cutting the fat, we've gone past cutting the meat, we're into the bone," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, California Republican. "Where they're going to have to cut will reduce the ability to train and equip these people properly. And that's going to start costing lives."
Not everyone agrees. Some Republicans say they are ready to swallow defense cuts March 1 in order to get the domestic cuts, and they say the Defense Department has grown along with the rest of government and can handle the trims.
Most Democrats don't want to see the nondefense cuts and argue that they would cut domestic discretionary spending to a share of the national economy unseen in the past 50 years.
Those divisions have added a level of complexity to the ongoing dispute between Republicans who want only spending cuts and Democrats who say at least half of the money must come from another round of tax increases.
"It cannot be spending cuts alone. The balance is what the American people support," White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
The impasse leaves both sides staring at the latest do-or-die deadline, just a month after Mr. Obama and Congress surmounted the "fiscal cliff" by raising tax rates.
This latest deadline is the result of the 2011 budget deal, which granted Mr. Obama an increase in federal borrowing authority in exchange for capping discretionary spending for the rest of this decade, and for imposing $1 trillion in automatic spending cuts.
The cuts were supposed to be so blunt that they would force both sides to compromise on a deal to replace them. But the bipartisan supercommittee failed to reach a deal, leaving the cuts in place.
Even though the full bite of the cuts won't be felt until March, the effects already are hitting.
On Wednesday, the Pentagon announced that it would cut the Navy's presence in the Persian Gulf region from two aircraft carrier groups down to one, The Associated Press reported.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta called the sequesters "legislative madness" and said the level of defense cuts would threaten U.S. readiness.
"For those of you that have ever seen 'Blazing Saddles,' it's the scene of the sheriff putting the gun to his head in order to try to establish law and order. That's sequestration," he said.
On Tuesday, Mr. Obama begged Congress to replace half of the sequesters with tax increases, saying that eliminating tax deductions claimed chiefly by the wealthy could be used to plug the budget gap.
"We can't just cut our way to prosperity," he said.
The meeting between his top economic and policy advisers and the leaders of top defense companies was meant to highlight the job consequences of defense cuts.
"For some of these major companies, the impacts would be long-lasting," Mr. Carney said afterward. "A company like Northrop Grumman would have 20,000 small businesses in their pipeline that would be severely affected."
The cuts are so bad that both sides of the political aisle are trading blame over who put them into place.
Bob Woodward of The Washington Post wrote in a book last year that the sequesters were the White House's idea, though congressional Democrats say House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, agreed to them.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said both sides should shoulder responsibility.
"We bear responsibility as Republicans for allowing this to happen. Lead us to a better solution," Mr. Graham said.
If Mr. Obama fails, he said, he would "go down in history, in my view, as one of the most irresponsible commanders in chief."
For now, it's not clear whether either chamber will take action.
Mr. McKeon said he would like the House to vote on his proposal as soon as possible.
The House schedule next week will be dominated by a bill to halt federal civilian-workforce pay raises, and Congress is scheduled to be out the week after that to commemorate George Washington's birthday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said this week that he would like to bring up a package of tax increases for a vote, but it's unclear whether it can pass.
Mr. Boehner said the House last year, in the previous Congress, passed bills to avert a sequester and that the next move is up to Senate Democrats.
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