WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama blamed Republicans Friday for the failure of Congress to reach an agreement to stave off the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, calling the cuts "dumb" and "arbitrary."
"At a time when our business has finally begun to get some traction, hiring new workers, and bringing jobs back to America, we shouldn't be making dumb, arbitrary cuts to things that businesses depend on and workers depend on like education and research and infrastructure and defense," Obama said. "It's unnecessary, and at a time when too many Americans are still looking for work, it's inexcusable."
Obama's remarks come a day after the U.S. Senate voted down opposing plans to avert sequestration, thus putting the spending reductions in effect Friday, upon the president's signature. The outcome was expected and followed a drawn-out blame game over who proposed the unpopular deficit-reduction scheme, which mandates $1.2 trillion in budget cuts over 10 years. The cuts that will take effect for the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year amount to $85 billion.
The president criticized Republicans for rejecting a Democratic replacement package that included a combination of spending cuts and revenue-raisers, such as closing tax loopholes for oil and gas companies and implementing the so-called Buffett Rule. Republicans, who declared any new tax revenues off the table, filibustered the Democratic plan. They also failed to get a majority around their counterproposal, which would grant Obama the flexibility to implement the cuts in what his administration deemed the best way.
"As long as the sequester is in place, we'll know that that economic news could have been better if Congress had not failed to act," Obama said. "And let's be clear, none of this is necessary. It's happening because of a choice that Republicans in Congress have made."
"They've allowed these cuts to happen, because they refused to budge on closing a single wasteful loophole to help reduce the deficit," he continued. "As recently as yesterday they decided to protect special interest tax breaks for the well-off and the well-connected, and they think that that's apparently more important than protecting our military or middle class families from the pain of these cuts."
The president spoke after meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for just under an hour at the White House. There was little significance to the meeting, coming on the day that sequestration kicks in.
But Boehner told reporters on his way out that the House will move next week on a bill to address the continuing resolution, or funding of the government, which expires on March 27. Sequestration could be reshaped as part of those negotiations.
"I'm hopeful that we won't have to deal with the threat of a government shutdown while we're dealing with the sequester at the same time," Boehner said.
Republicans are maintaining however that the top line should be at the post-sequester spending levels of $974 billion. For many Democrats, that could be a non-starter.
House Republicans are expected to vote on a six-month continuing resolution that includes the $85 billion cuts, with defense and military construction appropriations bills attached.
When pressed on whether he would sign a continuing resolution that keeps sequestration in place, even if that was not his preference, the president was vague, saying only that he would sign a bill that reflects prior commitments.
"I think it's fair to say that I made a deal for a certain budget [and] certain numbers. There's no reason why that deal needs to be reopened," he said. "If the bill that is on my desk is reflective of the commitments that we previously made, then, obviously, I would sign it, because I want to make sure we keep on doing what we need to do for the American people."
The president also pushed back against allegations that instead of working with Congress, he pursued a more passive approach as both parties failed to reach a deal to avoid sequestration.
"I am not a dictator, I'm the president," Obama said.
"Ultimately, if Mitch McConnell or John Boehner say we need to go to catch a plane, I can't have Secret Service block the doorway."
This is a developing story and has been updated.
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