The president blinks:
President Obama on Tuesday will ask Congress to approve legislation to replace at least some of the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts set to hit the government on March 1. A White House official said Obama would emphasize that the scheduled cuts would hurt the Pentagon and the broader economy. "With our economy poised to continue to strengthen this year, the president will make clear that we can't see another self-inflicted wound from Washington," a White House official said. "The president will urge Congress to come together and act to ensure these devastating cuts to defense and job-creating programs don't take effect."
The 'sequestration' cuts have been a source of political schizophrenia for Obama. First, his White House proposed the automatic cuts mechanism during the debt debate of 2011. Since then, they've attempted to pass it off as Congress' idea, but Bob Woodward's reporting has taken their mendacity apart at the seams. In November of 2011, months after the debt deal was struck, Obama criticized Republicans for trying to replace some of the mandated cuts to shield the Pentagon from deep budgetary slashes -- an outcome that Obama's own Defense Secretary warned would amount to the US military shooting itself in the head. The president was adamant: "My message to them is simple: No. I will veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts to domestic and defense spending. There will be no easy off ramps on this one " Almost a year later, Obama raised eyebrows by flatly asserting that the sequester "will not happen" during the final presidential debate. Phil Klein quips that the president has now confirmed that he's the one seeking an "easy off ramp," and that he's inadvertently ceded the upper hand to Republicans in the process:
Ever since the election, Republicans have been frustrated by their lack of leverage against Obama. Taxes would have gone up by $4.5 trillion on Jan. 1 if nothing was done, so Republicans were forced to agree to limit the damage. If there were no increase in the debt limit, any economic chaos that followed would have allowed Obama to blame Republicans and distract attention from the problems posed by the nation’s mounting debt, so they agreed to suspend it — a strategy I had described as Maneuver X. Now Republicans have turned the tables on Obama. If nothing happens by March 1, about $1 trillion worth of spending cuts will go into effect automatically. Ideally, Republicans don’t want the military spending cuts, and they have voted in the House to replace them with other cuts. But they can live with them if nothing happens. Coming off the fourth quarter in which the economy contracted by 0.1 percent and was hurt by defense cuts, Obama doesn’t want to have headlines of defense contractor layoffs eroding his political capital in the short window he has to advance his second term agenda.
In other words, the inertia finally favors the GOP. House Republicans have repeatedly voted to protect the military against their disproportionate share of the mandated cuts, but to no avail. Democrats have opposed them at every turn, and the president has threatened to veto any such effort (as quoted above). Now Obama realizes that he's staring $1 trillion in brutal, immediate, across-the-board spending cuts in the face, and he's worried. He has little appetite for spending restraint in the first place, but the current scenario truly puts him in a bind. The cuts will weaken national security and crudely undermine popular domestic programs. For a guy who campaigned in 2008 on the need to judiciously cut the budget with "a scalpel," he's about to take a pickaxe to the federal budget and hack away half-blindfolded. And it was his idea. So what's his last-ditch plan to avert this mess of his own making? Surprise:
White House officials say President Barack Obama will ask Congress to come up with tens of billions of dollars in short-term spending cuts and tax revenue to put off the automatic across the board cuts that are scheduled to kick in March 1.
Basically, Obama wants Republicans in Congress to delay a tranche of previously agreed-upon, legally-required spending reductions and replace some of them with tax increases. There's a simple response to this proposal: Hell no. If they have any sense and unity of purpose at all, Congressional Republicans will stand firm and resist this gimmick until either (a) they get an offer they can't refuse in terms of smarter, long-term cuts and reforms, or (b) the sequester takes effect. It goes without saying that they should toss the tax hike demand straight into the rubbish bin. Obama got his silly "tax the rich" victory over the fiscal cliff. That ship has sailed, and it must not return to port. In regards to the looming cuts, I realize that they would be -- to quote the president -- "not optimal" for the military, to put it lightly. But Obama is counting on (justifiable) Republican defense jitters to scotch the package of cuts. The GOP must make it clear that despite their strong misgivings and previous attempts to rectify some of the very challenges Obama is now lamenting, they are willing to let the Obama-proposed cuts go into effect. Klein summarizes the Republicans' robust position: "Either [Obama] agrees to cuts of an equal amount, or the sequester will kick in."
One final point: Additional delays of the sequester play into Obama's hands within the larger context of battles over spending and debt. Remember, these cuts were the auto-fire consequence of the 'Super Committee' failing to agree upon more than $1 trillion in cuts after the last debt deal -- which is to say that these are 2011 cuts that are still lingering in Washington, not having gone into effect yet. There will be future battles over spending and debt. The problem isn't going away. Conservatives need to make sure to clear the decks before Democrats inevitably try to muddy the waters by lumping two-year-old cuts into the "savings" of a future deal. It's time to close that book, and fight, well, forward. Party leaders have assured the media that their caucus is prepared to stand shoulder-to-shoulder on this. But boasting of "having the votes" doesn't always work out, does it? In any case, it's been awhile, but the GOP finally has a strategic advantage over the president. They'd better not squander it.
UPDATE - As reported, the president made a brief statement at the daily White House press briefing. He made his unrealistic demands, offered no specific alternate solution, then left. Mitch McConnell steps up to the plate and delivers an immediate slap-down:
“The President who first proposed the sequester, and who just last year claimed that the sequester ‘will not happen,’ now wants to ‘delay’ the sequester for a few months with more permanent tax hikes at a time when American families are already feeling the pinch of the Obama economy. House Republicans have twice passed legislation that would replace the sequester in a smarter way, only to see it ignored by the Democrat-controlled Senate. If Democrats have ideas for smarter cuts, they should bring them up for debate. But the American people will not support more tax hikes in place of the meaningful spending reductions both parties already agreed to and the President signed into law. Now that Congress has acted on the tax issue, the President needs to lay out significant spending reforms—the other side of the ‘balance’ as he defines it. But every day spent talking about ‘corporate jets’ is a day wasted, and given that the President again missed the deadline to submit a budget this year, there’s not much time to spare. The clock is ticking. It’s time to get serious.”
Sen. Pat Toomey, who has been excellent on these issues, has also forcefully and succinctly rejected Obama's latest stunt: "Sorry, President Obama, but no more tax increases for even more government spending. We should keep our word to the American people and keep the spending cuts you signed into law."
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