With sweeping, indiscriminate spending cuts on the horizon, President Obama today used his bully pulpit to warn of the real-life impact on thousands of Americans while casting shame on Congress for not acting to stop it.
"It's so troubling that just 10 days from now, Congress might allow a series of automatic, severe budget cuts to take place that … won't help the economy, won't create jobs, will visit hardship on a whole lot of people," he said of the "sequester," surrounded by cops and emergency responders in a White House auditorium
Details of the $85 billion "meat-cleaver" cuts, set to kick-in March 1, are grim:
"It will jeopardize our military readiness. It will eviscerate job-creating investments in education and energy and medical research. It won't consider whether we're cutting some bloated program that has outlived its usefulness or a vital service that Americans depend on every single day. It doesn't make those distinctions," Obama said, noting that agencies have little leeway in how to impose the cuts.
"Emergency responders, like the ones who are here today, their ability to help communities respond to and recover from disasters, will be degraded," he continued, motioning to the crowd behind him. "Border Patrol agents will see their hours reduced. FBI agents will be furloughed. Federal prosecutors will have to close cases and let criminals go.
"Air traffic controllers and airport security will see cutbacks, which means more delays at airports across the country. Thousands of teachers and educators will be laid off. Tens of thousands of parents will have to scramble to find child care for their kids. Hundreds of thousands of Americans will lose access to primary care and preventive care like flu vaccinations and cancer screenings," he said.
Obama noted that the Pentagon has already delayed the deployment of an aircraft carrier group to the Persian Gulf and sent out notices to hundreds of thousands of civilian workers warning of potential furloughs because of the looming cuts.
"These cuts are not smart. They are not fair. They will hurt our economy. They will add hundreds of thousands of Americans to the unemployment rolls. This is not an abstraction. People will lose their jobs.
"Here's the thing," he added. "They don't have to happen. There is a smarter way to do this, to reduce our deficits without harming our economy. But Congress has to act in order for that to happen."
But there is little sign of urgency to reach a deal. With Congress on recess for the next week, Democrats and the White House remain sharply at odds with Republicans on how to replace the package of automatic cuts - totaling $1.2 trillion - with a more sensible plan.
Obama insists that any deal must include a "balance" some spending cuts and new tax revenue, specifically through elimination of some tax loopholes, credits and deductions. Republicans, however, have drawn a line against any net new taxes. Some Republicans have even publicly said they would prefer to see the automatic cuts take effect rather than compromise on higher revenue.
"Once again, the president offered no credible plan that can pass Congress, only more calls for higher taxes," House Speaker John Boehner said today, responding to Obama. "Just last month, the president got his higher taxes on the wealthy, and he's already back for more. The American people understand that the revenue debate is now closed. We should close loopholes and carve-outs in the tax code, but that revenue should be used to lower rates across the board.
"Replacing the president's sequester will require a plan to cut spending that will put us on the path to a budget that is balanced in 10 years," he said. "To keep these first responders on the job, what other spending is the president willing to cut?"
Boehner says House Republicans have already passed two bills aimed at replacing the package of automatic cuts with a more "common sense" approach. Such steps have been non-starters with Democrats and the White House, who say the measures heap burdens from deficit reduction onto the middle class.
"I know that Republicans have proposed some ideas, too," Obama said. But they ask "nothing of the wealthiest Americans or biggest corporations. So the burden is all on first responders or seniors of middle-class families.
"It's wrong to ask the middle class to bear the full burden of deficit reduction, and that's why I will not sign a plan that harms the middle class," he said.