WASHINGTON -- First the White House and Congress created a potential fiscal crisis, agreeing more than a year ago to once-unthinkable governmentwide spending cuts in 2013 unless the two parties agreed to alternative ways to reduce budget deficits.
Now that those cuts are imminent -- because compromise is not -- they have created one of Washington's odder blame games over just whose bad idea this was.
The battle lines over cuts that are scheduled to begin Friday, known in budget parlance as sequestration, were evident Saturday in President Barack Obama's weekly address and the Republican response, delivered by Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota.
"Unfortunately, it appears that Republicans in Congress have decided that instead of compromising, instead of asking anything of the wealthiest Americans, they would rather let these cuts fall squarely on the middle class," said Mr. Obama, who has proposed a substitute mix of both spending cuts and new revenues from repealing some tax breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations.
He added: "Are Republicans in Congress really willing to let these cuts fall on our kids' schools and mental health care just to protect tax loopholes for corporate jet owners? Are they really willing to slash military health care and the Border Patrol just because they refuse to eliminate tax breaks for big oil companies?"
For Republicans, who oppose any tax increases, Mr. Hoeven countered: "He blames Congress for the sequester, but Bob Woodward, in his book 'The Price of Politics,' sets the record straight. Woodward says it was President Obama who proposed -- and promoted -- the sequester."
Governors of both parties said Saturday that they knew federal budget cuts were coming, and they pleaded with Mr. Obama and Congress to give them more discretion over the use of federal money so they could minimize the pain for their citizens.
The governors, arriving in Washington for the winter meeting of the National Governors Association, said the automatic cuts in federal spending were creating havoc, threatening jobs and sapping economic growth in their states.
They urged the president and Congress to strike a deal that would allow state officials to set priorities and prune spending in a more selective way. They said the cuts would be easier to cope with if they had more freedom to decide how to allocate the savings in education, health care and public safety programs.
What makes this debate between the White House and Congress over blame so odd is that both sides' fingerprints -- and votes -- are all over the sequestration concept. The point of sequestration, in fact, was to define cuts that were so arbitrary and widespread that they would be unpalatable to both sides and force a deal.
That won Republicans' support for increasing the government's debt limit, and thereby averted the nation's first default. The Republican-led House and Democratic-led Senate each passed the accord overwhelmingly, and Mr. Obama gladly signed it.
The idea for sequestration did come from the Obama White House, as news accounts made clear at the time -- Jacob Lew, then Mr. Obama's budget director and now his nominee for treasury secretary, proposed it.
Mr. Lew, who had been a senior adviser to the House speaker in the 1980s, lifted language from a 1985 law he had helped negotiate, called the Gramm-Rudman law. That statute was conceived by two Republican senators to be "a sword of Damocles," as they said at the time, one that hung over the two parties, poised to strike unless they compromised on deficit reduction.
The law was ruled unconstitutional, and afterward, the Democratic-controlled Congress and President Ronald Reagan enacted a modified version, which resulted in relatively minor cuts until 1990. That year, the law's call for much larger cuts in the face of growing deficits helped force Congress and President George H.W. Bush to negotiate a five-year package of spending cuts and tax increases that is widely credited with contributing to balanced budgets later that decade.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2011. Mr. Obama and congressional Republicans were able to agree to nearly $1 trillion in reductions over a decade in "discretionary" spending programs, which cover just about everything the government does except the entitlement benefit programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
But they could not agree on the final $1.2 trillion. The president demanded that that amount come from higher taxes on the wealthy and some reductions in entitlement spending. Republicans insisted on entitlement cuts only.
So both parties started negotiating for some kind of trigger, as they called it -- an undesirable, automatic action that would slash deficits if Democrats and Republicans could not. Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats wanted a trigger mandating automatic spending cuts and tax increases; Republicans insisted on spending cuts only.
Democrats conceded, and that is when Mr. Lew -- along with Gene Sperling, director of Mr. Obama's National Economic Council -- proposed the Gramm-Rudman sequestration. Given that law's Republican parentage, the Obama advisers figured this kind of trigger would appeal to Republicans, and it did.
Speaker John Boehner and three-quarters of House Republicans voted for the bipartisan agreement. To use Mr. Hoeven's word, both parties "promoted" their compromise, including sequestration. Mr. Boehner said he had gotten "98 percent" of what he wanted.
Their bipartisan thinking was this: With indiscriminate automatic cuts taken equally from domestic spending and from Pentagon accounts, Republicans would so badly want to avoid cutting military spending that they would accept some tax increases. And Democrats would be so eager to avoid cuts in domestic programs that they would drop their opposition to reductions in future entitlement benefits for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
It has not worked out that way.
The blame game started during the 2012 election. Republicans, including their presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, blamed Mr. Obama for the looming military cuts. And while Mr. Obama generally said sequestration was something both parties should work to avoid, in an October debate with Mr. Romney he seemed to disavow the idea altogether.
"The sequester is not something that I've proposed," he said. "It is something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen."
At that time, Republicans and Democrats generally assumed that sequestration would not happen because they would reach a compromise.
As this weekend arrived, Republicans were circulating a column by Mr. Woodward, published online by The Washington Post on Friday, in which he wrote that Mr. Obama was "moving the goal posts" from what he had agreed to in the summer of 2011 by insisting that a sequestration substitute have tax increases as well as entitlement-spending reductions.
"What goal posts is Woodward referring to?" Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, wrote on Twitter late Friday. The White House, he added, "always wanted more revenue to avoid sequestration, not just cuts." Mr. Obama vowed from the day he announced the agreement 19 months ago that he would insist on "a balanced approach" that cut entitlement spending and raised revenues by overhauling tax breaks. "Everything will be on the table," he said.
The 2011 agreement left unspecified how to achieve the additional $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years. That fall, the so-called supercommittee, established to negotiate the savings, considered revenue increases totaling $300 billion in a Republican plan, $800 billion in Democrats' offer. With the supercommittee's failure, Mr. Obama and Congress had a year to seek the elusive "grand bargain." In late December they gave themselves another two months, but no negotiations ensued.