As clock ticks on 'sequester,' Washington runs short on ideas

President Obama takes to the bully pulpit again to blame Republicans even before sequester spending cuts begin. He's positioning himself for the debate to come, not to prevent the cuts from starting March 1.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama, accompanied by emergency responders, spoke at the White House Tuesday. He encouraged Republicans in Congress to find a solution for the looming 'sequester' – $85 billion worth of spending cuts set to go into effect March 1.

Deep, automatic federal spending cuts do not start for 10 days, but the blame game is already in full swing.

Pointing a finger at Republicans in Congress, President Obama painted a dark future Tuesday of weakened national defense, sidelined first responders, and shuttered school programs if the $85 billion worth of "brutal" spending cuts this year alone – called the “sequester” – go into effect.

The look of Mr. Obama’s latest bully pulpit moment was familiar: He spoke from a White House auditorium, surrounded by “real people” who would be affected – in this case, emergency responders in uniform. And his rhetoric was biting, a signal that he’s not trying to woo Republicans but rather position himself for the debate to come after the sequester goes into effect, as is widely expected.

Congress, in fact, is on recess this week. So Monday’s show seemed principally for the cameras.

“Republicans in Congress face a simple choice,” Obama said. “Are they willing to compromise to protect vital investments in education and health care and national security and all the jobs that depend on them? Or would they rather put hundreds of thousands of jobs and our entire economy at risk just to protect a few special interest tax loopholes that benefit only the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations?”

Neither side, of course, wants the sequester to kick in. It was designed in 2011 to spur both sides to reach a compromise. But the usual sticking point remains: taxes. Obama says a sensible solution includes targeted spending cuts and tax increases via the closing of certain loopholes and deductions. Republicans say they’re done with tax hikes; they gave in last December during the fiscal cliff talks, agreeing to an increase in the top marginal rate for the wealthiest taxpayers.  

House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio slammed the president for putting on a “campaign-style event,” and blamed him for ignoring legislation that has passed the House – a plan that contains “common-sense cuts and reforms” that won’t threaten public safety, national security, or the economy.

“Once again,” Speaker Boehner said, “the president offered no credible plan that can pass Congress – only more calls for higher taxes.”

Last week, an exasperated speaker declared that he was finished trying to reach an agreement with the Democrats in Congress and the White House.

"Frankly, every time I've gotten into one of these high-profile negotiations, you know, it's my rear end that got burnt," Boehner said.

What the speaker didn’t say is that he gets in as much trouble with factions of his own party as with the White House. So it may be that any eventual resolution of the sequester could come down again to two old Senate hands – the Republican minority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky and Vice President Joe Biden, whose years as a senator schooled him in the back-room art of deal-making.

But for now, the klieg lights are on Obama, and he sees the inevitable approaching: The sequester will go into effect, and he is angling for political advantage.

On the broader range of issues, including immigration reform and gun control as well as fiscal matters, the president has faced cries of frustration from bipartisan-minded Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill that Obama is not reaching out to them. The idea is that these senators could provide cover for other Senate Republicans, and eventually Republicans in the House.

“I view this as a time to turn the page and take a fresh approach from both the White House and the congressional perspective and try to work together on these difficult political issues that have to be addressed,” Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio told Politico recently. “Doing it at the level of our leadership and the president hasn’t worked.”

The Democrats have a 55-to-45 majority in the Senate, but need to reach a filibuster-proof 60 votes to pass major legislation.

On the sequester, Obama need look no further than public opinion to see who has the advantage. The president is hanging on just above 50 percent in job approval, compared with Congress, which is mired in the teens. Capitol Hill gives Obama an easy foil.

But he could be taking a risk in hanging back and hectoring congressional Republicans as the clock ticks down to deep cuts, and not being seen as rolling up his sleeves and negotiating.

How risky is this for Obama?

“Clearly, I think he believes that his public strategy will help him get a better outcome,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “Republicans certainly don’t agree.”

The real question is how Obama’s approach affects the Republican-controlled House.

“There is a risk in drawing such bright lines against the Republicans in the House that you impede progress legislatively,” Mr. Schier says. “I don’t quite see what the public benefit is in being so obstreperous toward Congress. It’s not like you’re going to mobilize public opinion to get the House Republicans to change their stripes.”

It’s an unusual strategy, says Schier, but as Obama starts his second term, it shows he’s confident.

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