Staking out his ground ahead of a fiscal deadline, President Barack Obama lashed out against Republicans, saying they are unwilling to raise taxes to reduce deficits and warning that the jobs of essential government workers, from teachers to emergency responders, are on the line.
Obama spoke as a March 1 deadline for automatic across-the-board spending cuts approached and with Republicans and Democrats in an apparent stalemate over how to avoid them.
Obama cautioned that if the $85 billion in immediate cuts — known as the sequester — occur, the full range of government would feel the effects, from furloughed FBI agents to reductions in spending for communities to pay police, fire personnel and teachers.
He said the consequences would be felt across the economy.
“People will lose their jobs,” he said. “The unemployment rate might tick up again.”
“So far at least, the ideas that the Republicans have proposed ask nothing of the wealthiest Americans or the biggest corporations,” Obama said. “So the burden is all on the first-responders or seniors or middle-class families.”
House Speaker John Boehner countered that replacing the president’s sequester will require a plan to cut spending that will put the United States on the path to a budget that is balanced in 10 years.
“Just last month, the president got his higher taxes on the wealthy, and he’s already back for more,” Boehner said. “To keep these first responders on the job, what other spending is the president willing to cut?”
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack said the House has already passed two bills to replace the sequester with spending cuts and tax reform.
The alternatives, proposed by House Republicans, would target some spending and extending some of the reductions over a longer period of time. They also have said they are willing to undertake changes in the tax code and eliminate loopholes and tax subsidies.
“The President already got additional revenues at the beginning of the year,” said Womack, an Arkansas Republican. “It is now time to deliver on the spending cuts we desperately need.”
Obama's remarks came a day after he returned to Washington from a three-day golfing weekend in Florida.
Congress is not in session this week, meaning no votes will occur before next week and complicating the ability to negotiate any short-term resolution.
Obama wants to offset the sequester through a combination of targeted spending cuts and increased tax revenue. The White House is backing a proposal unveiled last week by Senate Democrats that is in line with the president's principles.
But that plan was met with an icy reception by Republicans, who oppose raising taxes to offset the cuts. GOP leaders say the president got the tax increases he wanted at the beginning of the year when Congress agreed to raise taxes on family income above $450,000 a year.
Republican Sen. John Barrasso said Sunday the country should be prepared for the sequester and its massive spending cuts to kick in next month, despite a proposal by Democrats last week to avert it.
“Let me be very clear — and I'd say this to the president as I say it to you — these spending cuts are going to go through on March 1,” Barrasso, of Wyoming, said on CNN's “State of the Union.”
“Taxes are off the table,” Barrasso and other Republicans have said repeatedly.
“The American people need to know tax cuts are off the table and the Republican Party is not in any way going to trade spending cuts for a tax increase,” Barrasso told CNN.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has advocated plugging loopholes, but as part of a discussion on a tax overhaul, not sequestration.
“Loopholes are necessary for tax reform,” Ryan said Sunday on ABC's “This Week.”
“If you take them for spending, you're blocking tax reform and you're really not getting the deficit under control,” said Ryan.
The sequester was first set to begin taking effect on Jan. 1. But as part of the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, the White House and lawmakers agreed to push it off for two months in order to create space to work on a larger budget deal.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan proposal Tuesday by co-chairs of an influential deficit-reduction commission called for reducing the deficit by $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years, with much of the savings coming through health-care reform, closing tax loopholes, a stingier adjustment of Social Security's cost of living increases and other measures.
Rank-and-file Republicans told The Hill newspaper Monday they're in no fear of political blowback from the sequester cuts. In fact, many are excited that the severe cuts are finally going to be enacted.
Obama has been a detached leader who has been unable to provide the necessary leadership in Washington on pressing spending issues, Rep. Jack Kingston told Newsmax.
“He's still in campaign mode,” said the Georgia Republican. “I think the president has no credibility and is on a fantasy tour. It's great politics. It's poor leadership.”
Republicans see the sequester as the best way possible to actually reduce government spending, which they see as the biggest threat to the nation. They also are ready to note the spending cuts will affect their own offices, The Hill pointed out.
“The bigger concern is what is good for the country,” Rep. Bruce Lamborn, R-Colo., told The Hill. He will have to lay off one of his own staffers because of the sequester.
Republicans are also getting ready to battle by reminding voters it was the White House that came up with the sequester.
The cuts were meant to serve as an incentive for a supercommittee of lawmakers to produce a different deficit-reduction plan, Lamborn and other Republicans point out. But the supercommittee failed, and now sequester looks very likely.
It's doing exactly what it was designed to do: impose painful cuts on both defense and nondefense spending so that Republicans and Democrats would feel political pain.
“It was his [Obama’s] idea. We know that there are elections coming in 2014 — we know that the president and the party will be all out to reclaim the House — but we have acted in good faith, so the president can put all this on Republicans all he wants, but that's just not the fact,” Womack earlier told The Hill.
Conservative groups like the Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation have urged lawmakers not to waiver from their stance, and predict political advantage from the cuts taking effect.
“If [Republicans] don't shy away from this, if they don't run from their own shadows and they don't [buckle] at the last minute, I think it's a battle they can win,” conservative Heritage Action spokesman Dan Holler said.
“The reason [Republicans] lose the battling war to the president so often is they can't get themselves on a clear path as to where they want to go. This is pretty easy, this is law,” he added.
“President Obama opposes any substantive spending cuts while calling for new government programs and spending, with ever higher taxes to pay for the excesses of his administration,” added Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips.
“Taxpayers are tired of Obama’s broken promises,” Phillips said in a statement. “Spending cuts are given lip service, but we’ve seen time and again that the tax hikes are real and the cuts never actually happen.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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