Finger-pointing trumps problem-solving on budget
Just about everyone in official Washington is in agreement that big across-the-board spending cuts at the Pentagon and throughout domestic federal programs on March 1 are a bad idea.
So far, however, the warring factions in the nation's capital seem more interested in finger-pointing than problem-solving.
Top House Republicans have embarked on a PR campaign reminding the public that the idea for the across-the-board cuts originated in Obama's White House.
Senate Democrats are preparing a bill to substitute about $120 billion in alternative deficit cuts over 10 years and prevent the automatic cuts - in Washington parlance, a sequester - through the end of calendar 2013. Its biggest component is a $47 billion tax increase on the rich; that is sure to prompt a GOP filibuster, probably successful, that will give Democrats political cover - and ammo.
"We again find ourselves in sad and familiar territory," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "Democrats sit on their hands until the last minute. Then they offer some gimmicky bill designed to fail."
Then there's President Barack Obama. He appeared before reporters at the White House last week to urge lawmakers to come up with a short-term plan to avoid the sequester. But Obama offered nothing specific, even though there are plenty of options at the ready after several recent rounds of failed Washington budget negotiations.
House Republicans do not have a plan to shut off the cuts and instead point to a spending cut bill that passed twice last year, most recently by a slender 215-209 vote in December. The GOP now controls eight fewer seats in the House and there's hardening sentiment among some tea party Republicans to allow the automatic cuts to take effect. It's not clear whether GOP leaders like Speaker John Boehner of Ohio could muster enough support to stop them.
"They seem content to sit on the sidelines and let the sequester take effect," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
The Senate bill would replace the automatic spending cuts with a tax increase patterned after the so-called Buffett Rule, which would require people with million-dollar incomes to pay a minimum 30 percent income tax. The rule is named after billionaire Warren Buffett, who championed it on the grounds that it wasn't fair for his secretary to pay a higher effective tax rate than him. That's because taxes on most earned or wage income are generally higher than taxes on investments.
The Buffett rule was a wedge issue in last year's campaign and was rejected by Senate Republicans in April. It's sure to prompt Republicans to scuttle the upcoming Democratic bill in a filibuster vote expected to be held just days before the cuts take effect March 1.
All sides now think Washington is inevitably drifting into the sequester trap. Everyone's sticking to their positions. It's as if the only way out of the crisis is to stumble into it - and hope the resulting political heat drives the battling sides to compromise.
Republicans say the moment calls for presidential leadership.
"The president warned of grave economic consequences if the sequester were to go into effect, but he didn't announce any specific plans for how he would address it," Boehner told reporters last week. "He didn't bother to actually outline how he would replace the sequester that he suggested and insisted upon."
Senior White House aide Jason Furman said last week that any short-term plan should include "a balanced combination of spending and revenue measures." He would not elaborate. Nor have Obama and Boehner talked recently, other than pleasantries at the inauguration. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., haven't been in touch either, even as the cuts loom ever closer.
"There's an eerie similarity here isn't there to previous occurrences?" McConnell said Tuesday. "Take no action. Go right up to the deadline. And have an 11th hour negotiation. Read my lips, I'm not interested in an eleventh-hour negotiation."
The idea for the sequester came from the White House during negotiations in the summer of 2011 to increase the government's borrowing cap. Then, the White House pushed it as a way to avoid a second vote to increase debt limit that would have occurred in the middle of Obama's re-election campaign.
Whatever their reservations, top Republicans voted for the idea.
The sequester was intended to be so harsh that its prospect would drive a deficit-cutting "supercommittee" created by those talks toward an agreement. It did not.
The cuts were originally due to hit Jan. 1 but lawmakers gave themselves a two-month reprieve in last month's deal to avert the so-called fiscal cliff.
Many Republicans see the prospect of the sequester as their best chance to force Obama to agree to cuts in government benefit programs like Medicare, and some tea party Republicans are willing to absorb the sequester cuts if he won't go along. GOP leaders across the board say they won't agree to tax increases demanded by Democrats as part of any solution.
Obama carries the power of his office and the fact that he's more popular with the public than Capitol Hill Republicans into the battle. So Republicans already have been working overtime to remind voters that the sequester idea came from Obama's administration. Still, blaming the president for something some GOP members are embracing promises to be a tightrope exercise for Republican leaders.