The nation’s capital was enveloped in a familiar kind of gridlock late Monday, as Republicans again demanded that President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats act first to put off $85 billion in automatic cuts slated to take effect on Friday.
“The president says we have to have another tax increase to avoid the sequester,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said of the hefty and indiscriminate spending cuts. “Well, Mr. President, you got your tax increase. It's time to cut spending.”
As Congress returned to work following a weeklong recess, the Obama administration and lawmakers appeared no closer to resolving the automatic spending cuts before their Friday deadline. While both Democrats and Republicans bemoan the cuts as potentially catastrophic for the economy and the national defense, both sides have been locked in a virtual staring match over the sequester.
The end result is that the cuts seem likely to take effect, if only for some limited period of time, come Friday. Both sides spent Monday posturing rather than working toward a solution.
For their part, the House GOP is content to rest upon the two bills they had passed in the last Congress meant to offset the $85 billion in spending cuts with a series of additional, alternative cuts. Democrats, led by Obama, had rejected that alternative as “unbalanced” because it did not include some measure of new tax revenue.
But, buoyed by stronger approval ratings than congressional Republicans, the president has also been generally unwilling to budge from his stance that a sequester replacement would have to include new tax revenue – likely through closing loopholes and deductions – in addition to other spending cuts.
“Unfortunately, in just four days Congress is poised to allow a series of arbitrary, automatic budget cuts to kick in that will slow our economy, eliminate good jobs, and leave a lot of folks who are already pretty thinly stretched scrambling to figure out what to do,” Obama told a bipartisan group of governors at the White House this morning.
The president leaned on the governors to pressure their respective states' congressional delegations to support a compromise agreement.
Obama has relied increasingly on these public events to make his arguments to the public, pursuing a sort of "outside" strategy meant to rally pressure on lawmakers to strike deals on a range of issues. For instance, Obama will travel to Newport News, Va., on Tuesday to highlight the negative toll the sequester would take on that region's defense industry.
For their part, Republicans have derided the president as spending more time on campaigning against the GOP than working toward a deal.
"Instead of using our military men and women as campaign props, if the president was serious, he'd sit down with Harry Reid and begin to address our problems," Boehner said Monday, referencing the dire warnings of furloughed workers and potential pay cuts for some employees involved with the nation's defenses.
Boehner and the rest of the House GOP appeared no closer to relenting on their demand that any final compromise originate in the Senate. After a roller-coaster past two years in the House, in which conservative lawmakers often threatened to upset delicate agreements Boehner had struck with Obama, the speaker has adopted a strategy of deferring to the Senate on many top legislative matters.
Before the recess, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the rest of the Democratic leadership unveiled a sequester proposal that would offset the impending cuts with new taxes on corporations and the ultrawealthy, more modest defense cuts and additional cuts in discretionary spending.
"Congress has the power to prevent these self-inflicted wounds," Reid said Monday on the Senate floor. "We have the power to turn off the sequester."
Amid the pessimism about the prospects for a deal, Boehner half-heartedly told reporters that "hope springs eternal" that an agreement could be reached by Friday.
"The president can sit down with Harry Reid tonight and work with Senate Democrats, who have the majority in the Senate to move a bill. It's time for them to act. I've made this clear for months now, and yet we've seen nothing," he said.