Obama calls Republicans to account as major budget cuts loom

Updated: 2013-02-21 03:53

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)

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After spending the President's Day holiday weekend golfing with Tiger Woods in sunny Florida, US President Barack Obama was back in Washington on Tuesday morning discussing a matter of legislative urgency.

Surrounded by firefighters and emergency response personnel in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Obama called on Republicans in Congress to pass measures to avoid a set of automatic spending cuts, under a procedure known as sequestration, due to begin on March 1.

When the bill was passed by Congress and signed by Obama in 2011, both agreed that if they could not reach a deal to reduce the US deficit by $4 trillion, including $2.5 trillion in reductions Congress has made over the past few years, about $1 trillion in automatic arbitrary cuts would start to take effect this year.

At the time, both believed that such an agreement would inject a sense of urgency for a deal to avoid the worst scenario. When the deadline arrived on Jan 1, Obama and congressional Republicans agreed to postpone the cuts for two months in the hope they could reach a longer-term deal by the end of February.

Now with only 10 days left before the extended March 1 deadline, a Congress that is in recess this week and a compromise that looks increasingly unlikely, Obama appeared increasingly impatient. He took on the Republicans in Congress right at the start of his speech.

"Unfortunately, Congress didn't compromise. They haven't come together and done their jobs, and so as a consequence, we've got these automatic, brutal spending cuts that are poised to happen next Friday," he said.

Under the sequestration, $1.2 trillion will be cut indiscriminately over a decade across a wide range of domestic and defense programs, including $85 billion in cuts by the end of this year.

"And by the way, the whole design of these arbitrary cuts was to make them so unattractive and unappealing that Democrats and Republicans would actually get together and find a good compromise of sensible cuts as well as closing tax loopholes and so forth," Obama said.

He said if Congress allows the "meat cleaver" approach to take place, it will endanger US military readiness, job-creating investments in education, energy and medical research, and the jobs of border patrol officers, FBI agents, airport security employees as well as those of the emergency responders standing behind him.

Economists said the cuts could be devastating ultimately for government contractors, civilian employees and the economy, resulting in the loss of some 750,000 jobs.

Saying that most US citizens agree with him, Obama blamed Republicans, saying their proposals have asked nothing of the wealthiest US citizens or large corporations.

But he said his door is still open. "I am willing to work with anybody to get this job done. None of us will get 100 percent of what we want. But nobody should want these cuts to go through, because the last thing our families can afford right now is pain imposed unnecessarily by partisan recklessness and ideological rigidity here in Washington.

"Congress can do the right thing. We can avert just one more Washington-manufactured problem that slows our recovery, and bring down our deficits in a balanced, responsible way," he said.

Republicans have insisted that Obama focuses too much on higher taxes on the wealthy, while falling short on spending cuts.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate minority leader, described Obama's Tuesday appearance as "prefers campaign events to common sense, bipartisan action."

House Speaker John Boehner, also a Republican, expressed his disappointment with Obama's speech. "The president offered no credible plan that can pass Congress — only more calls for higher taxes," he said. "Spending is the problem, spending must be the focus." he said.

During his inauguration speech late last month and State of the Union address a week ago, Obama laid out a long list of ambitious plans, from immigration reform and gun control to climate change and building infrastructure. Each has been a contentious issue between the sharply divided Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

The looming sequestration has cast a shadow on the long wish list he hopes will materialize during his second term and become the key legacy of his presidency.

Contact the writer at chenweihua@chinadailyusa.com