Washington braces for prolonged stand-off in the ‘sequester’ crisis as both sides neglect to seek out last-minute deal
The chances of a last-minute deal in the latest US tax and spending crisis appeared to be receding after Republican leaders said no new compromise would be tabled in talks at the White House scheduled for Friday.
Draconian cuts to the US budget are scheduled to kick in at midnight Friday, with the White House warning it will lead to teachers being laid off, defence orders scrapped, air travel delays, vaccine projects shelved and border security reduced.
The cuts stem from the latest clash between Barack Obama and Republicans in Congress over tax and spending. The difference this time is that neither Obama nor the Republicans are actively seeking the usual last-minute deal and Washington is braced for a prolonged stand-off in the so-called “sequester” crisis.
Obama is to meet the top two Republican congressional leaders, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and House speaker John Boehner, and their Democratic counterparts at the White House on Friday neither side anticipates a deal even being tabled, let alone reached.
There was not even the remotest hint of a compromise Thursday. McConnell, speaking in the Senate on Thursday, blamed Obama for failing to put forward a serious plan or engage in serious discussion.
“This week, he finally invited Speaker Boehner and me to discuss the sequester – tomorrow, the day it takes effect,” McConnell said.
McConnell added: “Now, after thwarting every bipartisan attempt to avert his sequester, the president is ready to make it bite as hard as possible – all to send a simple message to the public: ‘You want to control Washington spending, America? Fine, let me show you much I can make it hurt.’
“Instead of directing his cabinet secretaries to trim waste in their departments, he’s going to go after first responders. And teachers. And almost any other sympathetic constituency you can think of. And he’ll arbitrarily close parks and monuments too – all to force Americans to accept higher taxes. He’ll claim his hands are tied.
“He’ll say he has no choice but to release criminals into the streets and withhold vaccines from poor children. And somehow, it will be everyone’s fault but his. Nonsense.”
Boehner described the cuts as “not smart” but said the onus was not on the Republicans but Obama and Democrats in the Senate to come up with a bill to resolve it.
The crisis was born out of a 2011 clash over raising the debt ceiling when lawmakers agreed a hastily constructed fudge, known as the sequester, in which automatic cuts could take effect if Republicans and Democrats failed to agree on a tax and spending package.
At the time, both the White House and Republicans believed the cuts were so arbitrary and draconian that they would never be implemented and would force both sides to reach agreement. But neither side settled down to negotiate.
The chances of a late compromise are so negligible that the House will not be sitting Friday, wrapping up business on Thursday evening. Two bills were scheduled to be introduced in the House and Senate on Thursday but these were primarily to offer political cover, with no chance of either being passed.
The White House, tired after two years of showdown after showdown with Republicans over tax and spending, seems prepared to let the $85bn in cuts over the next seven months kick in and let the Republicans take the blame as tens of thousands of workers start to receive notices about shorter working weeks, compulsory leaves of absence or even lay-offs.
Republicans, after losing the last clash with Obama in December that resulted in a modest increase in taxes, are in no mood to give ground this time either. They accuse the White House of exaggeration and scare-mongering, saying there will be no visible effect in the short-term, with many of the cuts to be phased in over weeks and months.
But the deadline is already having an impact. The Department of Homeland Security this week released hundreds of undocumented workers were being held in detention centres. The immigration and customs enforcement division said the release was in preparation for the cuts which would limit the number of undocumented workers it can house.
Two Republican congressmen, Chuck Grassley and Bob Goodlatte, wrote to the secretary of state for homeland security, Janet Napolitano, on Thursday saying she should have been prepared.
“Simply blaming budget reductions as a means to turn a blind eye toward the national security of the American people is a dangerous plan,” they wrote.
The deadline has created confusion and anxiety throughout the country at a time when the US economy remains fragile. Economists warn that the cuts could cut growth by about half a percent, enough to send modest job increases into reverse.
Workers at a naval shipyard in Virginia visited this week by Obama expressed concern about reduced hours and possible lay-offs.
Obama is thinking strategically instead of continuing to lurch from crisis to crisis, intent on a final showdown with the Republicans rather than seeing his second term totally disrupted by repeated clashes.
The White House thinks Obama is in a strong position. The latest ABC-Washington Post poll shows 52% disapproval for his handling of the crisis but 67% disapproval for the Republicans.
Many Democrats, though they will not say this in public, see the $85bn in cuts as a good bargain because about half will come from Pentagon spending, which Republicans normally battle to protect.
On Thursday, the veteran Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward was involved in a spat with the White House after an article critical of Obama’s handling of the sequester. This prompted heated exchanges between Woodward and the White House’s national economic council director Gene Sperling, the White House denied a charge that Sperling threatened Woodward, insisting that he only said the reporter would regret writing the article.