President Barack Obama and Republicans in Congress are headed for a budget showdown March 1 involving $85 billion in mandatory cuts, unless lawmakers come up with a different way to reduce the deficit. The cuts will affect domestic and military spending equally, and have hardened the political battle lines in Washington.
Back in August of 2011, Obama proposed mandatory budget cuts as a way of forcing action to reduce deficit spending by more than $1 trillion over 10 years.
Most analysts predicted Congress agreed to this believing the mandatory cuts would never happen and that lawmakers would find a way to compromise on a different set of cuts in time to avert what many see as a meat cleaver approach to cutting government spending.
Compromise has proved elusive in the age of polarized politics in Washington, however, and the president warned lawmakers and the public about the consequences of the cuts in his recent State of the Union address.
“They would devastate priorities like education and energy and medical research. They would certainly slow our recovery and cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs,” he said.
Republicans are holding firm, including the speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio.
“The sequester will be in effect until there are cuts and reforms that put us on a path to balance the budget over the next 10 years, period!” said Boehner.
Analysts say conservatives now see the sequester cuts as the best way to make a real dent in government spending. Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute said:
“Especially a number of conservatives, in and out of Congress, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, are saying, ‘Bring it on, let us do the sequester,’ and the basic underlying theme is, ‘We are going to get a huge set of budget cuts. We are not going to get them any other way. Big deal if they hurt. Let us make it happen.’”
Ornstein said Republicans are taking a risk by backing the cuts and directly challenging Obama so soon after his re-election victory last November.
“The president has the upper hand in many objective ways. His approval rating is high. Congress’ approval rating is low, and Republicans in Congress have a particularly low approval rating. Americans do not want these things to occur.”
In order to block the sequester cuts from taking effect, Congress would have to pass an alternative set of budget cuts by March 1. But Ornstein said time is running out.
“And the real danger here is that we could reach a confrontation and have some real damage done that ultimately will probably be dealt with, but in the meantime the damage will be there and it will be long lasting,” he said.
The cuts would affect international humanitarian and military assistance, and could upset allies, said analyst Jim Arkedis with the Progressive Policy Institute.
“I think that the world is probably a little bit frustrated, certainly countries that are expecting to receive American aid, whether it is humanitarian or military assistance, you name it, sort of Democratic formation assistance, that sort of thing, are probably frustrated and nervous,” said Arkedis.
Neither side appears in a hurry to do much to derail the automatic cuts. Republicans see it as the only way to truly shrink government spending. Democrats believe they will reap political benefit because the public will largely blame Republicans for any disruption to government services that come about from the cuts.