WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's top Democratic ally in the Senate said Wednesday that he won't block much-feared automatic spending cuts to the Pentagon and Medicare providers from taking effect unless Republicans show more flexibility on cutting the budget deficit.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that $110 billion in automatic cuts coming due in January were designed to force both Republicans and Democrats to bargain over a "balanced approach" – including tax increases – to tackling trillion dollar-plus deficits. That hasn't happened yet, Reid said, and he's unwilling to let lawmakers off the hook.
The automatic cuts, known as a sequester, are the result of the failure of a deficit "supercommittee" to reach agreement last year.
"Republicans refused to be reasonable. They refused to raise even a penny of new revenue, or ask millionaires to contribute their fair share to help reduce our deficit and our debt," Reid said. "It is their intransigence – their refusal to compromise – that leaves us facing the threat of the sequester, and its difficult but balanced cuts."
Republicans controlling the House are seeking to undo the automatic cuts by substituting cuts to domestic programs like food aid, Obama's health care law and social services like Meals on Wheels.
But Reid said the GOP legislation is unfair since it cuts programs for the poor while leaving the wealthy untouched.
"Democrats won't agree to a one-sided solution that lets the super-wealthy off the hook while forcing the middle class, and those in greatest need, to bear all the hardship," he said.
Two top Republicans, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon of California and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin countered Wednesday with an editorial on RealClearPolitics.com, which warned of the "crippling effect" the sequester would have on the military, including troop cuts and gains made against terrorism.
"In addition to this threat to our national security, the sequester would also impose deep cuts to programs like the National Institutes of Health and border security, squeezing critical priorities," wrote the lawmakers. "The House is taking action to avoid these dire results by replacing the sequester with common-sense spending reductions."
The White House proposed lifting the automatic cuts in its February budget, which called for tax increases on wealthier people and closing numerous tax breaks enjoyed by corporations. Even as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned the sequester would lead to a "hollowed out" military, White House officials have taken a hard line against incremental efforts to switch off the cuts.
It's commonly assumed that the fate of the automatic cuts and a slew of other unfinished Capitol Hill business like the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts will be addressed in a post-election lame duck session. On the other hand, lawmakers could opt to punt such decisions yet again – particularly if Republicans take back the White House and reclaim the Senate.