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Nation & World

Obama calls on GOP to come up with alternative to sequester cuts

Surrounded by first responders who may be impacted by looming budget cuts, U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during an event at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building February 19, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Surrounded by first responders who may be impacted by looming budget cuts, U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during an event at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building February 19, 2013 in Washington, DC.

(MCT) — WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Tuesday pressured Republicans to prevent “meat cleaver” spending cuts from slashing crucial federal services, effectively starting the clock on the final scramble to stave off automatic spending cuts due to hit next week.

Standing with uniformed police and firefighters at the White House, Obama issued grave warnings about the effect of the across-the-board cuts on such public servants—cuts he and Congress approved in 2011 as a mechanism to force compromise on debt and deficit reduction.

Public safety, food inspections, border security, military readiness and education programs are all at stake if the nearly 8 percent reductions to defense and roughly 5 percent cuts to domestic programs are allowed to kick in this year, Obama said.

“If Congress allows this meat-cleaver approach to take place, it will jeopardize our military readiness; it will eviscerate job-creating investments in education and energy and medical research,” Obama said. “These cuts are not smart. They are not fair. They will hurt our economy.”

Rather than spur bipartisan compromise, the $1.2 trillion in spending cuts have led to another budget standoff in Washington, one that fits a strikingly familiar pattern. With a hard deadline looming, Obama is warning of dire consequences and Republicans are complaining of the president’s lack of leadership.

The pattern may try public patience. But the White House has used it in the past to win battles with the Republican-led House over payroll taxes, student loan interest rates, the debt ceiling and income taxes. In each fight, Obama won concessions by focusing on a deadline, taking a popular position and backing Republicans into a corner.

In this case, Obama and his Democratic allies are pushing a proposal that would delay the budget pain for 10 more months, replacing the across-the-board cuts with more targeted reductions as well as new tax revenue collected from taxpayers earning more then $1 million a year.

Republicans, however, have rejected any proposal that raises taxes and have sought an alternative that relies only on reducing federal spending. The Senate is expected to hold largely symbolic votes on both approaches when Congress returns from a weeklong President’s Day recess next week.

The final round has 10 days to play out — the cuts take effect March 1 — but some argue it’s likely to come with a new ending. After agreeing to raise tax rates on top earners in a year-end budget deal, breaking a decades-long pledge to refuse tax increases, many Republicans are in no mood to bend to the president’s will.

“Just last month, the president got his higher taxes on the wealthy, and he’s already back for more,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday. “The American people understand that the revenue debate is now closed.”

The current fight is just part of the larger debate over reaching an elusive deal that addresses the long-term drivers of the nation’s debt.

The parties seemed no closer on that front Tuesday. Obama hammered Republicans for rebuking what he calls his “balanced” approach and claimed they’d “rather have these cuts go into effect than close a single tax loophole for the wealthiest Americans. Not one.”

Republicans pushed backed by noting they want to simplify the tax code, eliminating deductions and loopholes, but also want to ensure additional revenue raised is used toward deficit reduction, not new spending.

Two veteran budget hands, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, inserted themselves into the standoff on Tuesday, proposing a second long-term debt reduction plan.

Bowles, a Democrat and former White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, and Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, headed the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which devised but did not agree to adopt a wide-ranging plan in 2011. Since then, the men have become advocates for bipartisan compromise that uses tax increases, revenue and entitlement reforms to lower the debt.

Their new, four-part proposal would build on the budget-cutting steps the White House and Congress already have enacted. The men called for entitlement and tax reform to produce about $2.4 trillion in deficit reduction and replace the $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts.

Congressional Republicans said Tuesday they are steeling themselves for the cuts to kick in and preparing to blame the president and Democrats for any damage.

“Too little, too late,” said Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, of the president’s remarks. “He knows we’re not going to increase taxes. So it’s all political.”

Some top administration officials now believe that the March 1 cuts are inevitable, and that Republicans won’t be ready to deal until their constituents begin to suffer — and complain about — the consequences.

The president’s latest strategy is to put pressure on Republicans now, in hopes of shortening the time period the cuts are in effect if not preventing them altogether.

Obama’s attempt to put a human face on the sequester cuts started with the firefighters and police on Tuesday; the effort will continue as the deadline draws near. Government agencies have some tools at their disposal to mute the effects of a short-term cut, said one senior official, but can’t prevent the inevitable interruption in services and layoff notices.

The private sector will also react to the cuts with layoffs, said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss the private White House calculations.

If the White House can’t avert the cuts, officials at least want to pin the blame for them on Republicans.

“There is no question that this would set back the recovery and slow down job creation,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday. “If we have one fundamental goal here in Washington, it should be to work towards growing the economy and increasing job creation, not doing unnecessary, arbitrary things to halt or reverse that process.”

(Los Angeles Times staff writers Jim Puzzanghera and Richard Simon contributed to this report.)

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