President Barack Obama pauses as he answers a question about sequestration March 1 at the White House following a meeting with Speaker of the House John Boehner and congressional leaders. Obama branded the automatic budget cuts about to slam into the U.S. economy as "dumb" and "unnecessary" but blamed Republicans for the failure to avert them. (Jewel Samad / AFP)
WASHINGTON — Little progress appeared to be made Friday during a White House meeting between the president and congressional leaders about deep budget cuts triggered earlier in the day.
President Barack Obama, speaking from the White House briefing room following the meeting, called the $1 trillion combined cuts to planned defense and domestic spending “arbitrary” and “unnecessary” and “inexcusable.” He added the cuts would “send a ripple effect throughout the economy.”
He and congressional Republicans agree on that, but not much else, adding doubt about Washington’s ability to undo or delay the cuts before they are fully implemented on March 27.
Echoing lawmakers, Obama said the best hope for forcing the political system into action is lawmakers’ constituents.
“My hope is that after some reflection, as members of Congress start hearing from constituents that are negatively impacted … they step back and say, ‘All right, is there a way for us to move forward on’ a package of deficit-reduction measures that both political parties can agree on,” Obama said.
At various points during the press conference, the president mentioned killing programs “that don’t work,” closing corporate tax loopholes, other federal cuts and some entitlement program reforms.
The problem is House Republicans — and some in the Senate — don’t agree with him on how to reform entitlements nor on closing loopholes. And their biggest difference remains new revenues.
Obama wants some. Republicans want none.
As he departed the White House, House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, repeated his line that “spending is the problem.”
“The president got his tax hikes in January,” Boehner said. “The discussion about revenue is over. It’s about taking on the spending problem here in Washington.”
The president, at various points in the 19 months of trying to strike a big fiscal deal or one to just avert sequestration, has proposed a smaller amount of defense cuts than the $500 billion in sequestration.
But House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., told reporters on Capitol Hill earlier Friday that Boehner told Obama during the meeting that House Republicans will accept no further defense cuts.
Obama hit Republicans for “refusing to budge on closing a single wasteful loophole to close the deficit.” He sharply accused Republicans of being more interested in protecting the “well connected,” saying they think “that’s more important than protecting our military.” House Republicans, meantime, accused Obama of just wanting to raise taxes and slash Pentagon spending.
McKeon twice held up two quarters during the Hill briefing and told reporters “for every dollar we have saved” since deficit-reduction efforts began in 2011 “50 cents have come out of defense.”
His message to Obama: No more.
Not all of McKeon’s House GOP colleagues feel that way, however. Some support further reductions to Pentagon spending, and some are fine with allowing the full sequester cut to happen.
McKeon told reporters those members simply “aren’t experts” on the military like the HASC members who joined him on a stage Friday. It is unclear, however, what else House GOP hawks can do to change the minds of spending cut-frenzied Republicans.
Obama said he intends to keep pushing members of both parties on Capitol Hill to pass something to avert the cuts.
“It may take a couple weeks, it may take a couple months, but I’m gonna keep on pushing on it,” Obama said.
“What is true right now is the Republicans have made a choice that maintaining an iron-clad rule that we will not accept an extra dime of revenue makes it [hard] to get a comprehensive deal,” Obama said, unintentionally underscoring the main hurdle standing before getting a deal done.
Asked why he simply doesn’t lock himself in a room with congressional leaders and not let them leave until a sequester-averting deal is in place, Obama said he “is not a dictator” and “cannot have Secret Service block the door.
“If there was a secret way to [force a deal],” Obama said, “I would have tried that, I would have done that.”
While some, including Obama himself at times, as well as military leaders and defense industry brass, have predicted the sequestration cuts would have dire consequences, the president struck a different tone Friday.
“This is not going to be an apocalypse,” Obama said. “But it’s dumb.”