Less than two weeks before a devastating set of across-the-board spending cuts is slated to go into effect, President Obama today again entreated Republicans to work with him on a deal to stave off the so-called sequestration, reiterating that his "door is open" to negotiate a "balanced" package, but warning that he will "not sign a plan that harms the middle class."
Mr. Obama, who was during his remarks flanked by first responders, warned of dire consequences for letting the $1.2 trillion worth of cuts, which are spread equally over defense and domestic non-defense spending over the course of 10 years, go into effect on March 1 as scheduled.
He said he found it "troubling" that Congress was not working harder to stave off the cuts, given that "these cuts are not smart; they are not fair; they will hurt our economy; they will add hundreds of thousands of Americans to the unemployment roll." He also pointed out that many first responders -- such as those standing behind him -- as well as hundreds of thousands of other Americans could join the unemployment rolls if the cuts went into effect.
"This is not an abstraction - people will lose their jobs," he said. "Our top priority must be to do everything we can to grow the economy and create good middle-class jobs. It has to drive every decision that Congress and everyone in Washington makes over the next several years. That's why its so troubling that just 10 days from now Congress might allow a series of automatic, severe budget cuts to take place that will do the exact opposite."
Late last year, in down-to-the-wire negotiations that extended into the wee hours of New Year's Eve, Congress passed a short-term, three-month deal to stave off the cuts, which were not intended to go into effect but rather were meant to prove so potentially devastating as to force Republicans and Democrats to compromise on an alternate solution. But as the clock ticks toward the latest deadline, little progress appears to have been made, and Congress left town last week for a week-long recess.
"This was all designed to say we can't do these bad cuts, let's do something smarter -- that was the whole point of this so-called sequestration," Mr. Obama said today. "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; it won't consider whether we're cutting some bloated program that has outlived its usefulness or a vital service that Americans depend on every single day. It doesn't make those distinctions."
Mr. Obama argued, as he has done repeatedly, that he is willing to eliminate inefficiencies and dysfunctional federal programs, reform the nation's entitlement programs, and enact comprehensive tax reform in what he calls a "balanced" approach to deficit reduction. But he argued that Republicans, in refusing to work with him on such an approach, are demonstrating "a preference where they'd rather have these cuts go into effect than close a single tax loophole for the wealthiest Americans."
"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? 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?" he asked. "That's the choice."
This morning, the Wall Street Journal reported the existence of a new potential basis for compromise: Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, who penned the failed Simpson-Bowles plan for reducing the deficit, are working on a new proposal that would reform the tax code and implement deep spending cuts.
According to the Wall Street Journal, that plan would reduce the deficit by $2.4 trillion over 10 years, identifying $600 billion worth of cuts through reforms to entitlement programs, and $600 billion worth of revenues by closing various tax loopholes.
House Speaker John Boehner, however, has dismissed the idea of raising taxes, and argued that if loopholes are closed in the tax code, the revenues should go to "lower rates across the board."
"Replacing the president's sequester will require a plan to cut spending that will put us on the path to a budget that is balanced in 10 years," he said. "To keep these first responders on the job, what other spending is the president willing to cut?"
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also responded to the president's remarks with a statement: "Surely the President won't cut funds to first responders when just last year Washington handed out an estimated $115 billion in payments to individuals who weren't even eligible to receive them, or at a time when 11 different government agencies are funding 90 different green energy programs," he said. "That would be a terrible and entirely unnecessary choice by a President who claims to want bipartisan reform."