With House Republicans set to move two key appropriations bills this week, the White House has come out swinging with a public relations offensive picking apart the Republican budget line by line — an indication that President Obama will take a tougher stance on spending this time and could be cracking the door to another government shutdown fight.
The Obama administration maintains it won’t accept any bills that keep sequestration-level spending limits in place, a blanket declaration that analysts say all but guarantees a high-stakes confrontation with Republicans over the next few months as the fiscal year heads toward its Sept. 30 end.
Although the president has yet to formally threaten to veto any specific pieces of legislation, Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan has detailed the administration’s objections to Republican-backed spending bills in lengthy letters to leading House members. The letters also lay out the White House alternatives to Republican proposals — major spending increases paid for in part with tax hikes.
Administration officials say the strategy is designed to show congressional Republicans that Mr. Obama is serious about rejecting any spending plans that keep sequestration in place, setting the stage for a budget battle that is more contentious than processes of the past several years. The president’s proposed budget calls for about $74 billion in spending above the sequestration caps, with the new money divided almost equally between defense and nondefense spending.
“The president has been clear he wants to work with Congress to replace these [sequestration] cuts. We thought it was important to continue driving home the point that the president is very serious about what he will accept and what he won’t accept,” an administration official said Monday.
The automatic budget cuts known as sequestration came about as a consequence of the debt ceiling fight between the White House and congressional Republicans in 2011. That fight led to the Budget Control Act, legislation that called for a “supercommittee” to cut $1.5 trillion from the federal budget over the next decade. The committee ultimately failed to find the cuts, causing the automatic spending restrictions to go into effect.
The House is set to vote this week on the two appropriations bills that stick to those spending levels, one to fund veterans’ programs and the other to provide funding for energy programs, to safely guard the nation’s nuclear weapons and other priorities.
The measures will come to the House floor this week.
But the White House and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill strongly oppose the two bills. The administration has suggested that Mr. Obama will veto the measures, though official veto threats have yet to be issued.
Specialists say the White House’s position, and Mr. Donovan’s letters in particular, could lead to the kind of bitter budget fight reminiscent of 2013, when the federal government was forced to shut down after the two sides failed to reach agreement before the fiscal year ended.
“This kind of blanket statement from the White House that they will not allow the sequester to take effect or approve bills that stick to the sequester levels — that certainly sets up a more confrontational debate on the issue, even in an overall environment that I think a lot of people would say is less confrontational than it has been,” said Joshua Gordon, policy director at the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan organization that tracks federal budget issues.
In his letters to House Republican leaders, Mr. Donovan detailed the specific objections of the White House, spelling out the spending increases Mr. Obama wants instead.
House Republicans’ budget, for example, would spend $14 billion less on pre-K education, medical research and job training than the spending plan released by the president this year. It also would spend billions of dollars less on some aspects of national defense, taxpayer services, counterterrorism operations, transportation infrastructure and other areas, Mr. Donovan said.
“The bills released so far, along with the targets for the remaining bills, show that the Republican budget funding levels will force cuts compared to the president’s budget in areas important to the economy and the middle class,” he said.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders say Mr. Obama’s desired spending increases and the tax hikes to pay for them are dead on arrival.
“According to the president’s budget request, these fabricated additional funds would come primarily through tax increases that are not, and will never become, current law,” said Jennifer Hing, spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee.
• Tom Howell contributed to this report.