WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Tuesday pressured Republicans to prevent "meat cleaver" spending cuts from slashing crucial federal services, effectively starting the clock on the final scramble to stave off automatic spending cuts due to hit next week.
Standing with uniformed police and firefighters at the White House, Mr. Obama issued grave warnings about the effect of the across-the-board cuts on such public servants -- cuts he and Congress approved in 2011 as a mechanism to force compromise on debt and deficit reduction.
Public safety, food inspections, border security, military readiness and education programs are all at stake if the nearly 8 percent reductions to defense and roughly 5 percent cuts to domestic programs are allowed to kick in this year, Mr. Obama said.
"If Congress allows this meat-cleaver approach to take place, it will jeopardize our military readiness; it will eviscerate job-creating investments in education and energy and medical research," the president said. "These cuts are not smart. They are not fair. They will hurt our economy."
Rather than spur bipartisan compromise, the $1.2 trillion in spending cuts have led to another budget standoff in Washington, one that fits a strikingly familiar pattern. With a hard deadline looming, Mr. Obama is warning of dire consequences, and Republicans are complaining of the president's lack of leadership.
The pattern may try public patience. But the White House has used it in the past to win battles with the Republican-led House over payroll taxes, student loan interest rates, the debt ceiling and income taxes. In each fight, Mr. Obama won concessions by focusing on a deadline, taking a popular position and backing Republicans into a corner.
In this case, Mr. Obama and his Democratic allies are pushing a proposal that would delay the budget pain for 10 more months, replacing the across-the-board cuts with more targeted reductions as well as new tax revenue collected from taxpayers earning more then $1 million a year.
Republicans have rejected any proposal that raises taxes and have sought an alternative that relies only on reducing federal spending. The Senate is expected to hold largely symbolic votes on both approaches when Congress returns from a weeklong Presidents Day recess next week.
The final round has 10 days to play out -- the cuts take effect March 1 -- but some argue that it is likely to come with a new ending. After agreeing to raise tax rates on top earners in a year-end budget deal, breaking a decades-long pledge to refuse tax increases, many Republicans are in no mood to bend.
"Just last month, the president got his higher taxes on the wealthy, and he's already back for more," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday. "The American people understand that the revenue debate is now closed."
The fight is part of the larger debate over reaching a deal that addresses the long-term drivers of the nation's debt. The parties seemed no closer on that front Tuesday. Mr. Obama hammered Republicans for rebuking what he calls his "balanced" approach and claimed that they'd "rather have these cuts go into effect than close a single tax loophole for the wealthiest Americans. Not one."
Republicans pushed back by noting that they want to simplify the tax code, eliminating deductions and loopholes, but also want to ensure that additional revenue raised is used toward deficit reduction, not new spending.
Two veteran budget hands, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, inserted themselves into the standoff Tuesday, proposing a second long-term debt reduction plan. Mr. Bowles, a Democrat and White House chief of staff under former President Bill Clinton, and Mr. Simpson, a Republican former Wyoming senator, headed the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which devised but did not agree to adopt a wide-ranging plan in 2011. Since then, the men have become advocates for bipartisan compromise that uses tax increases, revenue and entitlement changes to lower the debt.
Their new, four-part proposal would build on the budget-cutting steps the White House and Congress already have enacted. The men called for entitlement and tax changes to produce about $2.4 trillion in deficit reduction and replace the $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts.
Mr. Obama's attempt to put a human face on the sequester cuts started Tuesday with the firefighters and police. That effort will continue as the deadline draws near.nation