By Michael O’Brien, Political Reporter, NBC News
Amid a growing sense that the drastic and automatic spending cuts known as the “sequester” are likely to take effect at the beginning of March, House Republicans have spent the last few weeks pinning the blame squarely on President Barack Obama if these cuts take place.
“We’re weeks away from the president’s sequester,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Wednesday morning on Capitol Hill. “And the president laid out no plan to eliminate the sequester and the harmful cuts that will come of it.”
Yet it’s not as though Obama has embraced the cuts, which economists warn could not only cost thousands of American jobs, but also threaten to weaken the national defense because a large portion of them fall disproportionately upon the Pentagon’s budget. Rather, he mimicked Republicans, and pointed fingers.
“In 2011, Congress passed a law saying that if both parties couldn’t agree on a plan to reach our deficit goal, about a trillion dollars’ worth of budget cuts would automatically go into effect this year,” the president said in his State of the Union address.
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, accompanied by the fellow House GOP leadership, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Feb. 5, 2013, to urge President Barack Obama to offer ideas to replace the looming, automatic budget cuts known as the sequester.
The blame game reflects the unpopularity of those cuts; a Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this month found that 43 percent of Americans oppose letting the sequester take effect, versus 22 percent who favor the automatic cuts. Almost a third of Americans expressed no opinion, though that number would almost certainly drop if the cuts are swiftly implemented.
But the mere fact that sequestration continues to hover over Washington’s budget battles is a direct result of the dysfunction that has come to characterize negotiations between Obama and congressional Republicans over the past two years. Despite both sides’ work to absolve themselves of responsibility for these cuts, there is more than enough blame to spread around.
The sequester was the byproduct of the last-minute deal forged in August of 2011 to raise the nation’s debt limit. As the deadline for default neared, Obama and Boehner struggled to reach an agreement that would give House Republicans the spending cuts they wanted, and allow Obama to prevent a default on the national debt.
That fight itself was somewhat unusual. Republicans, in their zest to extract spending cuts from the president, took the unusual step of demanding cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit, a congressional prerogative that had been largely routine in modern history.
According to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward’s book “The Price of Politics,” it was the White House that first suggested some kind of triggered spending cuts as part of a compromise to extract more borrowing authority. This is the primary evidence by which Republicans make their charge.
But GOP leaders also no longer acknowledge their own role in pushing the measure through Congress. Boehner told CBS News at the time of the deal that he was happy with the agreement, and “got 98 percent of what I wanted.”
“No one said it’s his responsibility alone. We’ve just pointed out accurately that the only reason it exists is his insistence on it,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said Wednesday. “Given that fact, he, more than anyone, has responsibility to do something about it. And they’ve done nothing.”
The whole point of the sequester, though, was its design – fashioned to be so reckless and deep in its cuts that it would be politically distasteful to lawmakers in both parties, forcing the administration and congressional Republicans to reach an agreement.
In fact, the 2011 agreement also created the so-called “super committee,” the bipartisan, bicameral panel that was intended to generate a comprehensive proposal to replace the sequester with a series of spending cuts, new tax revenue and entitlement reforms.
Their work failed because Republicans and Democrats couldn’t reach an agreement – a prime example of the strident divisions that characterized the last Congress.
President Barack Obama explains his view on what a sequester would do to the U.S. economy while delivering the State of the Union on Tuesday.
Sequestration, of course, was the other prong of the so-called “fiscal cliff,” the economically catastrophic combination of those spending cuts and the automatic spending hikes that were set to take place at the beginning of this year. Lawmakers addressed part of the tax component when they passed legislation allowing taxes to rise on household income over $450,000.
But they punted on the sequester for another two months, setting up the end-of-February deadline before these spending cuts take place. And as the onset of the sequester seems more and more like a fait accompli, Republicans and Democrats are now scrambling to assign blame.
GOP lawmakers’ central argument now is that they have passed an alternative to the sequester, though it leans solely on spending cuts and was regarded as dead in the Democratic-controlled Senate before the House even passed the proposal.
That’s at least better, Republicans argue, than the administration. The president has not formally debuted a detailed legislative alternative to the sequester, relying instead on outlining broad parameters and leaving the work to lawmakers.
“If Congress can’t act immediately on a bigger package … then I believe that they should at least pass a smaller package of spending cuts and tax reforms that would delay the economically damaging effects of the sequester for a few more months until Congress finds a way to replace these cuts with a smarter solution,” Obama said on Feb. 5.
He outlined more specific parameters – tax reform, entitlement savings and spending cuts – in Wednesday’s State of the Union that, Obama argued, would make up a more “balanced” replacement for the sequester.
That wasn’t enough for Boehner.
“Republicans have twice passed bills to replace the sequester,” the top Republican said on Wednesday. “It’s incumbent upon the president and Senate Democrats to show us their plan to stop the sequester from going into effect.”
Until then, more buck-passing.
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