Sequester: 'It's your fault....No, your fault!'

With just five days to go until the sequester's automatic spending cuts kick in, what's Washington doing about it? Not negotiating like responsible adults, but mainly pointing fingers of blame.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama pauses as he speaks about the sequester last week. The White House and congressional Republicans are arguing over who's responsible for the across-the-board spending cuts that could kick in Friday.

Just five days before the “sequester” and its automatic across-the-board spending cuts kicks in, Washington seems frozen in its inability to deal with what most people think is a terrible way to address the federal deficit – no apparent negotiations between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans, assigning political blame the main activity.

The finger-pointing began Saturday with President Obama’s weekly radio/web address and the Republican response from Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota.

“Are Republicans in Congress really willing to let these cuts fall on our kids’ schools and mental health care just to protect tax loopholes for corporate jet owners?” Mr. Obama asked. “Are they really willing to slash military health care and the border patrol just because they refuse to eliminate tax breaks for big oil companies?  Are they seriously prepared to inflict more pain on the middle class because they refuse to ask anything more of those at the very top? These are the questions Republicans in Congress need to ask themselves.”

Senator Hoeven countered with, “Why won’t he work with us? And the answer, quite simply, is because he wants higher taxes.”

“President Obama … not only wants higher taxes; he’s actually preventing economic growth and private-sector job creation,” he said. “He is blocking it with more regulation, red tape, and bureaucracy.”

On Sunday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood repeated his warning that the sequester could mean bad news for travelers as air traffic controllers were furloughed and some small regional airports shut down.

But Mr. LaHood – a former congressman from Illinois and the lone Republican in the Obama cabinet – took a shot at his fellow party members, too.

"Well, look it, I'm a Republican,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Nation.” “My audience is trying to persuade my former colleagues that they need to come to the table with a proposal, which ... they haven't done. While the president has, the Republicans haven't.”

Over on CBS's "Face the Nation,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned of the impact just the threat of sequestration is having on his field.

"There are literally teachers now who are getting pink slips, who are getting notices that they can't come back this fall," Mr. Duncan said

Republicans pushed back against such dire warnings.

“Stop sending out your cabinet secretaries to scare the American people,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

"Shame on Ray LaHood," Sen. John McCain responded when asked about the transportation secretary's shot at Republicans on "State of the Union."

As to who’s responsible for the sequester, Senator McCain pointed to the most-read item in Sunday’s political news: Bob Woodward’s op-ed piece in The Washington Post.

“My extensive reporting for my book ‘The Price of Politics’ shows that the automatic spending cuts were initiated by the White House and were the brainchild of [then-budget director] Lew, during the negotiations and White House congressional relations chief Rob Nabors – probably the foremost experts on budget issues in the senior ranks of the federal government,” Mr. Woodward wrote. “Obama personally approved of the plan for Lew and Nabors to propose the sequester to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid…. Nabors has told others that they checked with the president before going to see Reid. A mandatory sequester was the only action-forcing mechanism they could devise.”

As Woodward notes, a majority of Republicans did vote for the Budget Control Act, which included the sequester. But, he adds, “Key Republican staffers said they didn’t even initially know what a sequester was – because the concept stemmed from the budget wars of the 1980s, when they were not in government.”

In any case, the Woodward piece – written by one of the most influential journalists in Washington – gave plenty of political ammo to Republicans to cite for what House Speaker John Boehner has taken to calling the “Obamaquester.”

The White House finds it necessary to dispute the Woodward account of responsibility – initially, at least – for a budget maneuver with no readily-acknowledged paternity. White House press secretary Jay Carney calls Woodward’s charge that Obama had “moved the goal posts” on budget negotiations by seeking new revenues to accompany spending cuts “willfully wrong.”

In a two-page statement Sunday, the White House elaborated:

“There has never been any question that the President seeking revenues as part of a plan to replace the automatic cuts in the sequester was expected from the very beginning in the 2011 fiscal negotiations and the passage of the Budget Control Act. That the President today is seeking a balanced plan to replace it with revenues and entitlement reforms cannot in even the slightest way be considered a change of policy, a change of expectations, or moving the goalposts.”

With that, Woodward fired back.

"The White House pushback is a classic case of distortion and confusion," Woodward said in an e-mail to Politico on Sunday. "We unfortunately have seen this too often in recent presidential history.... I do not think it is willful. They are just mixed up, surprisingly so."

The psychology behind what's happening now has become a topic for professional discussion.

"It's often believed that you won't be able to extract the very best concession from the other side unless you are on the brink of something that's very bad," Robert Mnookin chairman of Harvard's Program on Negotiation and author of "Bargaining with the Devil,” tells The Associated Press. "It's a hugely dangerous game to play because people aren't always rational in their behavior."

In any case, as Jake Miller writes on the CBS News blog, “Everybody bought in, but nobody wants to claim ownership” of the sequester.

“Everybody's hands are dirty,” he writes. “But just days before a manufactured crisis sets fire to America's economic recovery, policymakers have fled the burning building, seemingly more inclined to point fingers than put out the blaze.”

Meanwhile, the dire warnings and blame-shifting continues.

Sunday afternoon, the White House announced that it would be releasing “new state-by-state reports on the devastating impact the sequester will have on jobs and middle class families across the country if Congressional Republicans fail to compromise to avert the sequester by March 1st.”  

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