WASHINGTON -- Congressional Republicans are preparing to counter increasingly dire warnings from President Barack Obama about the effect of automatic budget cuts with a plan to give the administration more flexibility in instituting $85 billion in cuts, a proposal they say could protect the most vital programs while shifting more of the political fallout to the White House.
The plan is vigorously opposed by the administration, which said Monday that it would do little to soften the blow to military and domestic programs. But it is also dividing Democrats, with lawmakers from states facing the deepest cuts signaling that they may be prepared to go along with Republicans if it means avoiding indiscriminate cuts to defense programs and social services.
With just three days left until the across-the-board cuts called sequestration are to begin, administration officials continued to describe the consequences in alarming terms, even as there was little evidence of serious negotiations with lawmakers to reach a deal to avoid them.
Still, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a leading defense hawk, appeared to advance the debate Monday. "This is the chance to do the big deal," he said on CNN. "I'm willing to raise revenue. I'm willing to raise $600 billion in new revenue if my Democratic friends would be willing to reform entitlements, and we can fix sequestration together."
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the automatic cuts would leave the nation less well-guarded and less able to meet terrorist threats, and would inconvenience millions of travelers. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar warned that campgrounds would close, firefighting efforts would be scaled back and fewer seasonal workers would be hired.
Seeking to shift responsibility for the cuts to Mr. Obama and to defang White House attacks, Republicans were expected to unveil legislation today that they said would mitigate some of the biggest concerns, by letting agencies and departments cull programs long ago proven ineffective, while making sure critical federal functions such as air traffic control and meat inspection are spared.
But White House budget officials are leery. If Congress grants the White House authority to protect air traffic controllers, Border Patrol agents and national parks, the administration's high-pressure campaign that has been mounting for weeks could deflate. Moreover, the White House would take on responsibility for deciding which programs to protect and which to expose -- and political consequences that go with that.
Daniel I. Werfel, controller of the White House budget office, said that if the administration had to cut $2 billion from the Education Department's budget, choosing between children covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or Title I for poor districts is not freedom. "Poor children or children with disabilities, it's $2 billion in a seven-month period of time," Mr. Werfel said. "The notion that there's these enormous pockets of low-priority activities that we can move this money from -- I don't see it."
White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed the GOP plan, saying no amount of flexibility could mitigate the automatic cuts' damage. He said such changes could help only "on the margins."
White House officials fear the legislation would give lawmakers the false sense that they had voted to take the sting out of cuts that will hurt no matter what flexibility the administration has. "The notion that you're walking away from this without some of the abrupt, significant effects that would occur from the sequester, in our estimation, it's not true," Mr. Werfel said.
The proposal is also opposed by some Republicans who fear that it would give away too much of Congress' authority to say where and how money gets spent. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., condemned it as an unacceptable ceding of congressional authority. "I say to my Republican friends, if you want to just give the president flexibility as to how to enact these cuts in defense spending, then why don't we go home and just give him the money?" he said Sunday on CNN. "I am totally opposed to that."
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., pointed out the irony of Republicans wanting to give Mr. Obama more discretion in how he manages the nation's finances. "These guys bash the president nonstop," he said in an interview. "Then they are going to take the power of the purse and say, 'We are so unable to do our job, we are going to give you complete flexibility to do it'?"
The showdown is likely to come Wednesday, when Senate Democrats are to put to a vote legislation that would cancel this year's automatic, across-the-board cuts and replace them with a $110 billion package of tax increases on incomes more than $1 million, elimination of farm subsidies and defense cuts delayed until 2014.
Republicans had been expected to present their own package to replace the so-called sequestration. Instead, Republican leaders were expected to present the flexibility legislation. Rather than a select set of domestic and military programs facing cuts of 11 to 13 percent, a much broader range of federal programs would face a considerably smaller hit.