WASHINGTON (CNN) – Both sides agree that forced spending cuts set to take effect next week will harm the economy and national security. Both sides have plans for averting the worst impacts.
So why are there no formal negotiations taking place with Congress on break this week as leaders from both parties accuse each other of intransigence?
Once again, the answer is the Washington blame game.
The same pattern of politically inspired brinksmanship that dominated President Barack Obama’s first term is continuing in the early days of his second.
Now, the collective weight of Obama’s re-election in November and the subsequent fiscal cliff deal in which Republicans conceded on tax increases makes compromise seem distant, if not impossible, in the short term.
The election that returned Obama to office and gave Democrats a stronger Senate majority while reducing the Republican majority in the House led to the January agreement by the outgoing Congress in its final hours.
That deal raised tax rates on top income earners while maintaining lower rates for everyone else. It also put off until March 1 the mandated spending cuts from a 2011 agreement that extended the Treasury’s authority to borrow money.
Known in Washington jargon as sequestration, the forced spending cuts to the military and other government agencies — but not entitlement programs that drive chronic federal deficits — were intended to motivate Congress to come up with a comprehensive deficit-reduction plan sought by both sides.
However, such an agreement proved impossible in the hyper-political climate of an election year, and the government-wide cuts opposed by both sides now are set to take effect. That would mean $85 billion in cuts for the rest of fiscal year 2013, which ends September 30, as part of a 10-year total of about $1 trillion.
The central issue is the same one that framed the November election. Republicans want to shrink the size of government and the spending needed to run it, while Democrats want to strengthen the safety net of federal programs that help the poor, the elderly, the disabled and other vulnerable communities.
Obama and leaders of both parties warn the pending spending cuts bode ill for the nation, but the rhetoric so far has focused on blaming the other side.
Obama and Democrats offer the same approach as a central theme of the election, calling for the wealthy to pay more as part of a package of spending cuts and increased revenue to replace the forced cuts of sequestration.
Ratcheting up pressure on Republicans with Congress in recess for Presidents Day week, White House spokesman Jay Carney announced Thursday that Obama had phoned House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He provided no details beyond describing the calls as “good conversations.”
Both Boehner and McConnell have complained that Obama refuses to address needed spending cuts and entitlement reforms to bring about substantive deficit reduction, and the timing of the phone calls appeared in response to questions about a lack of formal talks involving the president.
A $110 billion proposal by Senate Democrats, which is similar to a plan by House Democrats, would replace the forced spending cuts for a year by getting more tax revenue from millionaires, stopping some agriculture subsidies and cutting military spending after the end of combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014.
Flanked by firefighters and other emergency responders at a campaign-style event on Tuesday, Obama called for balancing the impact of deficit reduction so that the middle class and vulnerable citizens such as the elderly don’t get hit too hard.
Speaking in near apocalyptic terms, Obama warned of criminals going free, longer security lines at airports, reduced military readiness, fewer border guards, pre-schoolers losing access to Head Start programs and other problems if the full brunt of the spending cuts occur.
“Republicans in Congress face a simple choice: Are they willing to compromise to protect vital investments in education and health care and national security and all the jobs that depend on them?” the president asked. “Or would they rather put hundreds of thousands of jobs and our entire economy at risk just to protect a few special interest tax loopholes that benefit only the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations?”
GOP leaders, meanwhile, seek to blame Obama for the forced spending cuts so that any hardships that result, such as predicted job losses and reductions in economic growth, get attributed to the president.
In an opinion piece published Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal, Boehner called the forced spending cuts “ugly and dangerous,” saying they would diminish resources for the military, law enforcement, border security, aviation safety and other programs.
The January agreement ended the discussion of more taxes, argued Boehner, the de facto GOP leader on the issue. He advocated instead for other cuts to replace the across-the-board approach of sequestration and accusing Obama and Democrats of ignoring what he called the nation’s spending problem.
“The president’s sequester is the wrong way to reduce the deficit, but it is here to stay until Washington Democrats get serious about cutting spending,” wrote Boehner, R-Ohio. “The government simply cannot keep delaying the inevitable and spending money it doesn’t have. So, as the president’s outrage about the sequester grows in coming days, Republicans have a simple response: Mr. President, we agree that your sequester is bad policy. What spending are you willing to cut to replace it?”
By using language such as “the president’s sequester,” Boehner and Republicans want to implant a public perception that the plan was Obama’s all along.
The White House concedes that it raised the idea of forced budget cuts during the negotiations in 2011 on the debt ceiling deal, but argues Republicans including Boehner and other House leaders agreed to making it part of the deal and then voted for it.
Now, Carney says, Republicans acted like they never supported the idea.
He insisted Thursday that Obama has offered the only legitimate compromise proposal for significant deficit reduction, noting the Congressional Budget Office determined the president’s plan would bring deficits below 3% of gross domestic product by 2015, which he called an accepted target by economists.
Carney labeled any comparisons between what Obama proposes and the Republican stance as a “false equivalence,” arguing Obama has offered genuine compromise while GOP leaders remain unyielding against any additional tax revenue.
“You come half way and your negotiating partner stays where he or she is, that makes it very difficult to reach a compromise,” Carney told reporters. “You need compromise from the other side.”
According to Carney, Obama’s approach of spending cuts, entitlement reforms and new tax revenue is a compromise from a hard-line Democratic position that rejects any benefit reductions in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
He noted that in negotiations last December on the fiscal cliff agreement, Obama was willing to include a less generous inflation index for benefits such as Social Security, despite vehement protests from his liberal base.
“There’s some responsibility here on the Republican side to do what the president has done, which is to hear what the American people are saying, which is please compromise, please be reasonable, please do not adopt positions that represent a ‘my way or the highway’ approach,” Carney said.
To Boehner, Republicans already compromised in the January agreement by agreeing to return rates on top income earners to higher 1990s levels.
“The president got his higher taxes” with no spending cuts in the January deal, he wrote in the op-ed, adding that “no one should be talking about raising taxes” with examples of rampant government spending such as “paying people to play video games, giving folks free cell phones and buying $47,000 cigarette smoking machines.”
On Wednesday, Carney defended Obama’s campaign-style approach to generating public support for his stance on the issue, saying such pressure worked in the spending and deficit agreements of the past two years.
“You know why they happened? Because the American people supported those positions that the president took,” Carney said. “And, in the end, Congress responded to the will of the American people. And we hope that’s what’s going to happen again this time.”
A new poll on Thursday showed a strong majority of Americans want the kind of comprehensive deficit reduction called for by Obama, but support for a stop-gap measure on the forced spending cuts was less certain.
Seven of 10 respondents in the Pew Research and USA Today survey called major legislation to reduce the deficit the most important priority for Congress, and 76% backed the combination of spending cuts and revenue increases favored by the president and Democrats.
At the same time, 73% want more spending cuts than tax increases while only about 20% say the solution should be spending cuts alone.
If the forced spending cuts go into effect, 49% of respondents would blame Republicans in Congress while 31% would blame Obama, the poll showed. However, 49% said the cuts should be delayed while 40% said they should go into effect.