With severe spending cuts now etched into law, U.S. President Barack Obama urged Congress Saturday to find a deficit-trimming alternative that avoids what he has likened to using a meat cleaver.
Obama advocated what he called a balanced approach to replace across the board cuts of $85-billion in federal spending this year, blending “smart” cuts with reforms.
The so-called sequester mandated cuts were never actually meant to go into effect when it was fashioned in a deal with Congress in 2011.
The drastic cuts are not expected to be immediate or uniform across the country or from one government department to another.
Economists have warned that the cuts could cost many jobs and hinder growth in the still fragile U.S. economy. But the realization is sinking in that despite the perils they bring, the cuts are here to stay – at least for now.
In his weekly radio and Internet address Saturday, the president argued there was still time to find a smarter solution to the nation’s deficit and debt problem.
“I still believe we can and must replace these cuts with a balanced approach – one that combines smart spending cuts with entitlement reform and changes to our tax code that make it more fair for families and businesses without raising anyone’s tax rates,” Obama said.
These were allusions to Obama’s willingness to trim spending on programs like medical care for the elderly and the poor, something which is anathema to many in his Democratic Party, and Obama’s drive to close tax loopholes he says benefit the rich.
Republicans, who ceded to Obama in another budget showdown late last year and allowed taxes on the rich to go up, have said point blank that any deficit reduction now has to come from spending cuts, exclusively.
Obama said the budget deficit now exceeding $1-trillion can be reduced without laying off workers or forcing parents and students to pay the price.
“A majority of the American people agree with me on this approach – including a majority of Republicans,” the President argued.
“We just need Republicans in Congress to catch up with their own party and the rest of the country.”
Under the sequester, 800,000 civilian employees of the defence department will go on a mandatory furlough one day a week and the navy will trim voyages. The deployment of a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf has been cancelled.
Defence contractors may be forced to lay off workers and some federal health spending could be hit.
Cuts will also be made to special needs education and preschool for less well-off children. National parks could close and wait times could hit four hours at airport customs posts.
But the President insisted that despite public bickering, Republicans and Democrats actually had more in common than they were willing to let on.
Some Republicans have charged that the Obama administration is overstating the impact of the sequester, arguing it will not be so bad in the end.
A cartoon published Saturday in The Washington Post, entitled “Sequester Day,” illustrated this slice of the latest bipartisan battle to engulf gridlocked Washington. It featured three vignettes: the sun rising, a sailboat on a calm seas and the Earth staying in orbit.
“Told you,” says an elephant, the symbol of the Republican Party.
“Just wait,” retorts Obama, his arms crossed and looking miffed.
On Friday, hours before signing the cuts into law as he had to, Obama blamed the austerity time bomb on Republicans, who he said refused to close tax loopholes for the rich and corporations, combined with more targeted spending cuts, in his “balanced” approach to deficit reduction.
“I am not a dictator. I’m the president,” Obama said, warning he could not force his Republican foes to “do the right thing,” or make the Secret Service barricade Republicans leaders in a room until a deal is done.
“These cuts will hurt our economy, will cost us jobs and to set it right both sides need to be able to compromise,” Obama said, before decrying the budget trimming as “dumb” and “unnecessary.”
Only three months after winning re-election, and with the extent of his authority in Washington again constrained, Obama bemoaned his inability to do a “Jedi mind-meld” to get Republicans to change their minds, mixing imagery from Star Wars and Star Trek.
The hit to military and domestic spending was never supposed to happen, but was rather a device seen as so punishing that rival lawmakers would be forced to find a better compromise to cut the deficit.
Both sides agree that the sequester is a blunt instrument to cut spending, as it does not distinguish between essential and wasteful programs – in what Obama has branded a “meat-cleaver” approach.
New Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel warned that the sequester could endanger the military’s capacity to conduct its missions.