WASHINGTON – The federal government will start cutting spending as early as Saturday, with President Barack Obama and congressional leaders unable to bridge their fundamental disagreement over spending and taxes.
About the only thing the leaders who met at the White House for less than an hour agreed on: It’s the other party’s fault.
The administration has warned for weeks that the spending cuts – known in Washington as sequestration – will cause delays in air traffic, prompt teacher layoffs and hamper food inspections. But the White House has been accused of overstating the effects, and Obama said Friday that the $85 billion slice in federal spending, though painful for a still-recovering economy, will be survivable.
“This is not going to be an apocalypse, I think, as some people have said,” Obama said. “It’s just dumb. And it’s going to hurt. It’s going to hurt individual people and it’s going to hurt the economy overall.”
Obama’s remarks came minutes after he and congressional leaders wrapped up a 50-minute, last-ditch attempt at avoiding the series of spending cuts, designed by the administration and Congress in 2011 to be so objectionable to both parties that they would be forced to reach an alternative deal to trim projected deficits by $1.2 trillion over 10 years.
But resolution has proved elusive, and Obama put the blame squarely on Republicans, who opposed replacing some spending cuts with tax increases. He wants a mix of tax revenues and spending cuts; Republicans say they already agreed to a tax increase in January to avoid an earlier fiscal crisis.
“None of this is necessary; it’s happening because of a choice that Republicans in Congress have made,” Obama said. “They’ve allowed these cuts to happen because they refuse to budge on closing a single wasteful loophole to help reduce the deficit.”
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio underscored the Republican position, saying Obama “got his tax hikes” on Jan. 1. Republicans agreed to raises taxes on annual household income over $450,000 as part of a deal to avoid a collision of spending cuts and tax increases dubbed the fiscal cliff. That deal also raised the Social Security payroll tax on all Americans, regardless of income.
“This discussion about revenue, in my view, is over,” Boehner told reporters outside the White House. “It’s about taking on the spending problem here in Washington.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., vowed that he’d “not be part of any backroom deal” on the sequester and that he would “absolutely not agree to increase taxes.”
Obama and congressional Republicans did signal that they’d strive to keep the fight over sequestration separate from the next crisis: reaching an agreement to avoid a government shutdown later this month. Government funding expires March 27 and will require new budget legislation to keep many government operations running.
“There’s no reason why we should have another crisis by shutting the government down in addition to these arbitrary spending cuts,” Obama said. “If the bill that arrives on my desk is reflective of the commitments that we’ve previously made, then obviously I would sign it.”
And Boehner said the House of Representatives will take up legislation next week to continue funding the government beyond the end of the month.
Some congressional Democrats and Republicans have suggested that the cuts could be restored, or at least reconsidered, during that debate.
Obama said he hopes that as Congress starts hearing from constituents “who are being negatively impacted,” the Republicans will come back to the table.
“It may take a couple of weeks, it may take a couple of months, but I’m just going to keep pushing on it,” he said. The president said he’d keep pressing as well for the kind of “grand bargain” that he and congressional Republicans nearly reached in 2011 to cut spending and pull back the deficit.
Obama has angered Republicans who accuse him of preferring to stage campaign-style events outside the Beltway rather than negotiate with them. Though he and congressional leaders talked once by phone, the meeting in the Oval Office was the first significant face-to-face sequester meeting. But taking questions from reporters, Obama dismissed suggestions that he bears some responsibility for the situation, saying “conventional wisdom” in Washington may have it that he can force lawmakers to agree with him, but that he’s the president and “not a dictator.”
“I’m presenting a fair deal. The fact that they don’t take it means that I should somehow do a Jedi mind-meld with these folks and convince them to do what’s right,” he said, creating a “Star Wars”/“Star Trek” reference that the White House quickly seized on, creating a Web address: wh.gov/jedimindmeld, which takes viewers to the White House’s plan to avoid the sequester.
Obama argued that he’s offered proposals that his fellow Democrats oppose, including changes to hugely popular entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
“It’s not as if Democrats aren’t being asked to do anything to compromise,” Obama said. “I mean, there are members of my party who violently disagree with the notion that we should do anything on Medicare. And I’m willing to say to them, ‘I disagree with you.’ ”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she believes Democrats will make “judgments about entitlements as we go forward,” but she warned, “You cannot do it in isolation. You can’t say to seniors and to others, ‘You’re paying the whole price, and these others are getting off scot-free.’ ”
As Obama warned off a “ripple effect” that will disrupt middle-class families as furloughs for federal workers and contractors mean less money in their paychecks, House Republicans threatened to call Cabinet secretaries and other executive agency managers before Congress to determine how federal furloughs will be applied. They warned Obama against choosing political gain over public safety.
“If they’re laying off TSA agents and air-traffic controllers, and yet [Transportation Secretary] Ray Lahood’s office is still getting cleaned each night, come on,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, chairman of the regulatory subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee.