With less than two weeks to go before the latest fiscal face-off, rhetoric heated up Tuesday as the political parties exchanged fire over whom to blame if looming spending cuts take effect.
With Congress in recess this week, Republican and Democratic leaders sent lawmakers home armed with fact sheets about the $85 billion in across-the-board federal spending cuts due to start March 1, and talking points on how to blame the other side. Meantime, the White House and lawmakers are making no progress toward forging a compromise to avoid the reductions, which are known in Washington as the sequester.
President Barack Obama, who has proposed a deficit-reduction strategy that includes curbs on tax breaks for upper-income people, held a media event with firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians to ratchet up political pressure on Republicans to agree to delay the cuts. "Are you willing to see a bunch of first responders lose their job because you want to protect some special interest tax loophole?" he said.
Mr. Obama tried to infuse a greater sense of urgency into the debate at a time when many people outside Washington are just beginning to focus on the impending budget 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,'' he said. "This is not an abstraction. People will lose their jobs."
GOP leaders, meanwhile, gave lawmakers a list of federally funded projects they portray as wasteful, such as a study of the cognitive impact of videogames on the elderly, and a program to provide cellphone service to low-income people.
"As long as wasteful programs like this exist, it's going to be hard to convince people I represent that we have a revenue problem," said Rep. Martha Roby (R., Ala.), after speaking to a local Rotary Club about the effect of defense cuts on two big military installations in her district.
The verbal jabs came after deficit hawks Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles on Tuesday proposed a detailed plan for rewriting the tax code and implementing deep spending cuts, hoping it would be a road map to compromise. The two men served as co-chairmen of the White House's 2010 deficit-reduction panel, which put together a package of tax and spending changes that fell flat after the White House and congressional leaders took a look.
Mr. Simpson, a Republican who represented Wyoming in the Senate, and Mr. Bowles, a Democrat and former White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, proposed reducing the federal budget deficit by $2.4 trillion over 10 years, more than the $1.5 trillion package White House officials have said is their goal.
The $85 billion in scheduled spending cuts are "absolutely stupid, and I can say stupid, stupid, stupid," said Mr. Bowles. He later said the cuts would, among other things, lead to three-hour lines at airport-security checkpoints because personnel would be furloughed.
Congress's weeklong recess comes as both sides have laid out their bargaining positions. The parties agree that the across-the-board approach to cutting spending is ill-advised and would like to replace the cuts with a more targeted, gradual deficit-reduction plan. But they differ fundamentally on the question of whether tax increases should be part of the alternative.
"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," said House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio). "To keep these first responders on the job, what other spending is the president willing to cut?"
In an editorial published in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, Mr. Boehner said the sequester "is a product of the president's own failed leadership."
Mr. Boehner went on to say, "both parties today have a responsibility to find a bipartisan solution to the sequester. Turning it off and erasing its deficit reduction isn't an option."
Tuesday signaled that the next week or more of debate will be aimed at scoring political points if the cuts take effect, even temporarily, as now seems likely.
It is hard to predict what will happen immediately after the March 1 deadline is breached, but administration officials have said that many federal employees are likely to be furloughed one day a week, which could impinge on certain federal operations including meat inspection and law enforcement.
The mechanism for the sequester was established as part of the 2011 deal to raise the federal debt limit. The automatic cuts were seen as so draconian that Congress would enact a more targeted deficit-reduction deal to make comparable savings. But no such deal has been reached.
Republicans have repeatedly said Mr. Obama suggested the sequester as part of a 2011 deal to raise the federal borrowing limit. White House spokesman Jay Carney on Tuesday confirmed that the idea originated in the White House.
But it was devised by the White House because Republicans insisted on deep spending cuts as a condition of raising the debt ceiling, and both Republicans and Democrats voted for the bill that included the sequester.
The across-the-board cuts were supposed to be an option so dreadful it would force the two parties to compromise on an alternative deficit-reduction deal. Now, while members of both parties agree the sequester is a bad way to reduce spending, they still can't agree on a substitute.
On Capitol Hill, a senior Democratic aide said lawmakers have been given analyses of the effect of the spending cuts, including a state-by-state breakdown of the impact on education, such as on grants for elementary and secondary schools serving low-income students.
"Hopefully by the time Republicans get back to D.C. they will be a little less concerned about what the tea party thinks and will be ready to do the right thing for their constituents, the economy and our national security," said Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D., Wash.).
Republicans didn't question Mr. Obama's assertion that the spending cuts would have a dire effect. They said the plan to avert them should include only spending cuts, not tax increases.Damian Paletta contributed to this article.
More From The Wall Street Journal