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White House threatens to cut education, food safety

- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2013

Seeking to build political pressure on Republicans, the White House on Friday laid out some of the costs of looming spending "sequesters," saying the administration would cut 70,000 youngsters from Head Start, would reduce federal loans to small businesses and slash the number of food safety inspectors on the job.

The White House said the $85 billion in cuts, chiefly coming in defense but also covering basic domestic spending, would hurt the economy.

"Sequester is a blunt and indiscriminate instrument that poses a serious threat to our national security, domestic priorities, and the economy," said David Werfel, the federal controller for the White House's Office of Management and Budget. "It does not represent a responsible way to achieve deficit reduction."

Under the 2011 debt deal, the automatic cuts are slated to take effect every year for the rest of this decade, in exchange for Congress giving President Obama the authority to borrow more money.

All of that borrowing space has been used up, but Mr. Obama wants to cancel the cuts and replace them with tax increases instead, arguing that the wealthy can afford to pay more in order to spend on those priorities.

After the end-of-year tax-hike deal, the budget fights had appeared to die down until this week, when Mr. Obama took to the lectern at the White House press briefing room and said he wanted to try to avoid the sequesters.

Republicans, though, are split.

Leaders such as House Speaker John A. Boehner say they want to avoid the sequesters, and would prefer to cut other ways — though they reject tax hikes and any replacement must be alternative spending cuts. And defense-hawk Republicans say they cannot stomach the deep cuts to the Pentagon, which the White House now says would total 8 percent on an annualized basis.

But many rank-and-file Republicans say the sequesters are the best deal the GOP can get at this point to actually see some spending cuts. That sentiment was boosted after the "fiscal cliff" agreement, which saw Republicans agree to $650 billion in new taxes over the next decade without any corresponding spending cuts.

House Republicans in the previous Congress passed two bills to replace the sequesters with a new set of cuts, and said it'll be up to Democrats and Mr. Obama to come up with a viable alternative that doesn't include taxes.

"He got his tax hikes. Now we need to address our spending problem," Mr. Boehner's office said in a memo Friday morning.

In keeping with Mr. Obama's second-term strategy of trying to rally the public to pressure Congress, the White House detailed a series of specific cuts from the sequesters that it said would be too devastating to allow to happen.

"Across the government we'll see assistance programs slashed; we'll see contracts cut; we'll see employees out of work," Mr. Werfel said. "And we'll have no choice. The blunt, irresponsible, and severe nature of sequestration means that we can't plan our way out of these consequences or take steps to soften the blow."

600,000 women and children would lose food stamps, which could also cost at least 1,600 state and local jobs due to reduced funding.

• 100,000 formerly homeless people would lose their government-financed housing.

• Cuts to special-education money would eliminate federal support for 7,200 school employees around the country.

• Job safety inspectors might have to be furloughed, which the White House warned "would leave workers unprotected and could lead to an increase in worker fatality and injury rates."

The White House also laid out the broader negative consequences the sequester would have when it comes to the economy as a whole. Private forecasters, the Congressional Budget Office, and others have estimated that letting the sequester take hold would cost the country millions of jobs.

Jason Furman, the principal deputy director of the White House's National Economic Council, said the country got a "tiny bit of a preview" of the impact in the fourth quarter financial numbers, in which the Gross Domestic Product contracted because of cut backs in defense spending due in part just to fears about the sequester hitting.

If Congress can't reach a deal, the White House urged lawmakers to delay the sequester by at least a three-month period to allow time to find targeted spending cuts, instead of an arbitrary across-the-board slash to all budgets, defense and domestic.

"The notion here is to delay these very severe impacts that I've described so that you have time to work out a deal that can delay and avoid them more permanently," Mr. Furman said.

Susan Crabtree contributed to this report.

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