President Obama gestures Feb. 5 as he speaks in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington. The president asked Congress to come up with tens of billions of dollars in short-term spending cuts and tax revenue to put off the automatic cuts that are scheduled to kick in March 1. (Charles Dharapak / The Associated Press)
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President Obama wants more time for Congress and his administration to avoid deep defense and domestic spending cuts — but Republicans immediately bristled at his approach.
Speaking from the White House on Tuesday, Obama said an additional delay to the pending cuts is needed so his administration and lawmakers can "keep chipping away at this problem."
The president urged lawmakers to pass an unspecified amount of additional federal spending cuts and new revenue large enough to put off by several months a March 1 deadline for avoiding twin $500 billion, 10-year cuts to planned defense and domestic spending.
Those reductions would kick in on that date unless lawmakers and the White House strike an accord on a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction package.
Essentially, Obama wants Congress to delay a deadline that was delayed in January as part of the deal that averted the so-called fiscal cliff.
Obama said Congress — if it cannot get to that $1.2 trillion figure by March 1 — should pass "a smaller package" of cuts and tax reforms that would put off the across-the-board cuts by several months. He did not call for a specific size of the package nor a time span for a new delay.
The president reiterated his long-held belief that "a balanced mix of spending cuts and tax reform is the best way to finish the job of deficit reduction." Taking a shot at congressional Republicans, Obama added "most Americans share this view."
"If Congress cannot act immediately on a bigger package ... by the time the sequester is [scheduled to] take effect, I believe they should pass a smaller package of cuts and tax reforms to delay by a few more months the sequester," Obama said.
"There is no reason" that Americans who work in fields such as national security or education should suffer because Washington cannot agree on the components of a sequester-avoidance bill, Obama said. "Congress is already working on a budget to avoid the sequester, and we should give them more time."
Obama spoke about sequestration one week after Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, his 2008 campaign foe, charged he has been "MIA" on the issue. And in a tongue-in-cheek opening to a joint statement about the delay request, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., and Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said they "welcome President Obama to the table, perhaps better late than never."
But Obama's insistence on including in a delay package additional new sources of federal revenue was met by GOP resistance — two hours before Obama's 1:15 p.m. EST remarks.
"President Obama first proposed the sequester and insisted it become law," House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement issued at 11:11 a.m. "Republicans have twice voted to replace these arbitrary cuts with common-sense cuts and reforms that protect our national defense."
House Republicans "believe there is a better way to reduce the deficit, but Americans do not support sacrificing real spending cuts for more tax hikes," Boehner said. "The president's sequester should be replaced with spending cuts and reforms that will start us on the path to balancing the budget in 10 years."
McKeon and Inhofe echoed the speaker's message.
"We are … concerned that his proposal will include the same mix of tax increases and defense cuts that Democrats have advocated for in the past," the duo said.
"We must be clear. This approach is neither responsible nor balanced."
While opposing any new revenue, McKeon and Inhofe also warned that more defense cuts would essentially mean "using our troops as a piggy bank to keep unsustainable [domestic] spending programs on life support," which they say "will have both fiscal and strategic consequences."
House Republicans are digging in against new federal revenues, believing they gave Obama and congressional Democrats too much in new tax funds in the January fiscal cliff agreement.
Sources say House GOP members are prepared to fight Obama and Democrats fiercely in any sequestration-avoidance talks and a summer fight over the debt ceiling for more deep federal spending cuts.
The previous day, Boehner declared on the House floor that "spending is the problem."
Cobbling together a sequestration-delay package likely will prove difficult because Democrats simply disagree with Boehner and his GOP mates.
The nation does not have a "spending problem," Rep. Jim DcDermott, D-Wash., said during a Feb. 5 C-SPAN interview. "We have a revenue problem," he added — meaning too few funds are flowing into federal coffers.
McDermott criticized Republicans for, during the George W. Bush administration, fighting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, passing a pricey Medicare Part D package and wide-ranging tax cuts "without paying for them."
House Budget Committee member Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., said Republicans join Democrats in opposing the sequester's across-the-board manner to achieve the $1 trillion in total cuts. GOP members "much, much, much prefer" targeted cuts instead of sticking to current law's mandate that an equal percentage — 9 percent for the Defense Department — be cut from all non-exempt discretionary accounts, Garrett said.
In the middle are more moderate lawmakers such as House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who believes any new fiscal plans should include more spending cuts and revenue.
"You have to understand that there are three component parts to the solution: taxes; mandatory spending and discretionary spending," Smith said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office. "The discretionary budget is getting killed by our crippling inability to address revenue and mandatory spending. We can dress this up in a lot of ways, but until we address those issues, the defense budget … is going to be crushed."
Smith said he is "not optimistic" that Congress and the Obama administration can reach accord on enough deficit-reduction components.
That echoes many rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans in both chambers who have in recent weeks said they believe the sequester cuts are inevitable.
Simply kicking the sequester can down the road over and over is an approach opposed by both Republicans and Democrats.
"We urge the president to lead, rather than loop endlessly around a beaten path," McKeon and Inhofe said.
"I don't know. We can buy another month, buy another two," Smith told Defense News. "Until you address those broader issues, you're going to be in a bad spot."
In their own joint statement, the Senate's so-called "Three Amigos" — GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire — also criticized Obama for proposing more taxes.
They also announced "in the coming days" they intend to introduce legislation that would void the first year of the defense sequester cuts with savings created by trimming the size of the federal workforce