February 19, 2013

Obama kicks off bid to stop automatic spending cuts

President Barack Obama is launching a public campaign to pressure Congress to avoid “brutal” spending cuts he said could hurt a still wobbly economy and increase the unemployment rate.

President Barack Obama is launching a public campaign to pressure Congress to avoid “brutal” spending cuts he said could hurt a still wobbly economy and increase the unemployment rate.

Obama’s effort, punctuated by high-profile treks around the country and backed by a coordinated campaign by labor unions in 28 states and the District of Columbia, is aimed at averting $85 billion in across-the-board federal spending cuts scheduled to take effect March 1 unless Obama and lawmakers can agree on an alternative plan to curb federal deficits. With Congress out of town on recess until Feb. 25, that prospect appears increasingly unlikely.

Obama made his first pitch Tuesday as he returned from a three-day golf holiday in Florida and Congress remained out of town on its Presidents Day recess. Flanked on a stage at the White House complex by uniformed firefighters and other emergency workers, Obama warned they’d be among those affected by what he called a “meat cleaver approach” to federal spending. He called on Congress to instead pass a short-term fix.

“It won’t help the economy, won’t create jobs, will visit hardship on a whole lot of people,” Obama said of the cuts. “This is not an abstraction. People will lose their jobs.”

The $85 billion in automatic spending cuts would come off the more than $3.5 trillion the government expects to spend this year.

It is the first in a series of cuts, or sequesters, designed to cut $1.2 trillion from spending and interests costs over the next 10 years, which would leave the government spending total at $47.2 trillion and the cumulative deficit at $6.95 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Republicans dismissed Obama’s event as a campaign speech. House of Representatives Republicans noted that they twice voted for alternatives to the sequester, only to see them die in the Democratic-led Senate. Many Republicans now seem prepared for the cuts to take place, saying the government needs to reduce federal spending.

“Once again, the president offered no credible plan that can pass Congress – only more calls for higher taxes,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “Just last month, the president got his higher taxes on the wealthy, and he’s already back for more. The American people understand that the revenue debate is now closed.”

House Republicans are pushing an alternative that passed the House twice last year. That plan didn’t get a single Democratic vote and White House officials note that it expired when the new Congress came into office last month. It would focus the spending cuts on domestic programs rather than splitting them with defense, hitting programs championed by Democrats, including money to carry out Obama’s signature 2010 health care law, as well as housing programs, food stamp program increases and other domestic initiatives.

The administration favors replacing the sequester with a mix of cuts in projected spending and tax increases that target the wealthy, including eliminating tax breaks for corporate jets and oil companies and instituting the “Buffett Rule” – requiring millionaires to pay at a minimum income tax rate of 30 percent.

“The ideas that the Republicans have proposed ask nothing of the wealthiest Americans or biggest corporations, so the burden is all on first responders or seniors or middle-class families,” Obama said. “They’d rather have these cuts go into effect than close a single tax loophole for the wealthiest Americans. Not one.”

With a sweeping deal unlikely by March 1, Obama is pushing for a short-term measure that would delay the start of the cuts – already delayed once over the New Year’s weekend – and give lawmakers more time to work on a larger deal. Senate Democrats proposed a $110 billion plan Thursday to cut projected budget deficits over 10 years, and Obama on Tuesday endorsed the idea.

White House officials told reporters after Obama’s remarks that he plans similar events as March 1 approaches and will travel next week, taking his case to audiences outside Washington.

Obama warned of dire consequences if the sequestration is imposed, including cutbacks in airport security, furloughing of FBI agents and compromised military readiness. But the travel – which for Obama could include trips aboard Air Force One – also comes at a price tag: Air Force One, a special Boeing 747 that typically ferries a president, costs an estimated $179,750.13 per hour to operate, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

But White House aides believe Obama has successfully made his case to the public on other issues, including a payroll tax debate, and said Tuesday that House Republicans have refused to act until pressured to do so by the public.

Obama will get help this week from outside allies as well: national labor groups, including the AFL-CIO and the National Education Association, will hold more than 100 press conferences, marches and rallies in 23 states to press Congress.

Republicans have criticized the White House for not engaging more with Congress. Obama insisted Tuesday that his “door is open” and that he’s willing “to work with anybody to get this job done.”

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