Speaker of the House John Boehner, center, answers reporters' questions Feb. 13 during a news conference with Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., left, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., at the Republican Party Headquarters in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama used his annual State of the Union address to put down a rhetorical marker on the pending sequestration cuts, calling them “a really bad idea.” But congressional Republicans find his proposed fix so distasteful they are willing to cut planned military spending.
There has been little movement in recent years by the GOP-controlled House, Democratic-led Senate or Obama’s administration toward proposing the kind of $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction package that would void twin $500 billion cuts to planned defense and domestic spending over the next decade. Without the deficit plan, the cuts kick in March 1.
Obama has called on lawmakers to delay the cuts by a few months, as they did in January’s fiscal cliff bill, to give Washington more time to find an alternative. But Republicans say they want cuts now, and many oppose kicking the spending can down the road again.
Obama laid out his preferred method of voiding the cuts in Tuesday evening’s State of the Union speech, calling for a plan built mostly on reforming domestic entitlement programs. The president would use savings from those changes to replace the twin $500 billion cuts.
But Obama gave only a passing mention to any additional spending cuts, and it’s doubtful his approach could pass the spending-cut-frenzied House.
“Most Americans — Democrats, Republicans and independents — understand that we can’t just cut our way to prosperity,” Obama said. “They know that broad-based economic growth requires a balanced approach to deficit reduction, with spending cuts and revenue, and with everybody doing their fair share. And that’s the approach I offer tonight.”
The commander in chief did state his opposition to the across-the-board military cuts.
“These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness,” he said. “Democrats, Republicans, business leaders and economists have already said that these cuts … are a really bad idea.”
But the Democratic president then noted, “some in this Congress have proposed preventing only the defense cuts by making even bigger cuts to things like education and job training; Medicare and Social Security benefits.”
Signaling he would veto legislation proposing those kinds of cuts alone, Obama said plainly, “That idea is even worse.”
He laid out his desired approach for replacing the pending sequester cuts via new health care reforms, closing corporate tax loopholes and other tax-code changes.
But he did not lay out specific federal spending cuts, something that senior Republicans say make it likely sequestration will be triggered March 1. That’s because, in short, the two parties simply do not agree on enough issues to produce adequate deficit reduction.
“You know, last night the president offered up more of the same: higher taxes and more ‘stimulus’ spending,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters Wednesday. And just as disappointing, “we’re weeks away from the president’s sequester and the president laid out no plan to eliminate the sequester and the harmful cuts that will come as a result of it.
“Republicans have twice passed bills to replace the sequester,” Boehner said. “It’s incumbent upon the president and Senate Democrats to show us their plan to stop the sequester from going into effect.”
For those reasons and others, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., warned Wednesday that “we’re going to have sequestration.” He added, during a television interview: “There’s going to be some pain.”
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the No. 3 Republican in the House, also said Wednesday that he believes the sequester cuts will be triggered because GOP members and Democrats, led by Obama, are in such fundamental disagreement.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Tuesday, “it is pretty clear to me that the sequester is going to go into effect.”
During a Wednesday morning House Armed Services Committee hearing on sequestration’s impact on the military, members of both parties took turns taking political shots at the other party.
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., noted that the panel, via its Pentagon oversight responsibilities, has the power to at least pass legislation giving the Defense Department the authority to direct the cuts, rather than simply letting the across-the-board mechanism take 9 percent off all non-exempt accounts.
But Cooper said the committee is “doing nothing.”
HASC Chairman Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., noted HASC has passed several pieces of sequestration-themed legislation. When Cooper asked McKeon directly if he would consider passing a bill giving DoD the ability to implement the cuts, the chairman merely said “good suggestion,” and moved to the next member.
Little action in the House on this matter is nothing new. HASC member Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., told Defense News earlier this month that any plan to avoid or delay it would have to originate in the Senate.
McConnell said Tuesday he is awaiting a Senate Democratic plan on avoiding the sequester cuts.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday morning on the Senate floor that he intends to unveil that plan later this week. With the chamber slated to be out of town next week, the earliest the Senate could take up that plan — and a possible GOP counterproposal — would be the final week of February.
And that timeline makes yet another last-minute Washington fiscal battle, and maybe even a deal, inevitable.