WASHINGTON -- With massive cuts to defense and domestic spending set to take effect in three weeks, the White House is escalating pressure on Congress to delay the looming sequester by underscoring the damaging impact it would have on government programs and the economy.
White House officials warned reporters in a Friday briefing of some of the consequences of the sequester, should the $1.2 trillion cuts kick in as expected on March 1. They include the threat of hundreds of thousands of furloughs across federal agencies, the loss of nutritional assistance for approximately 600,000 women and children, fewer food inspections, disruption of federal education programs, and limitations on access to mental health services. Shortly before the briefing, the administration issued a fact sheet laying out the aftermath in more detail.
"[The] sequester is a blunt and indiscriminate instrument that poses a serious threat to our national security, domestic priorities and the economy," Danny Werfel, federal controller of the Office of Management and Budget, said at the top of the briefing. "It is not a responsible way to achieve deficit reduction."
He added that the shortened timeframe to achieve the cuts, based on the year-end fiscal cliff deal, meant that the effective percentage reductions for the rest of the year would amount to roughly 9 percent for domestic programs and 13 percent for defense programs.
The cuts "would be very damaging and very severe," said Jason Furman, principal deputy director of the National Economic Council.
Furman repeated President Barack Obama's call from earlier this week for a short-term package that would combine spending cuts and new tax revenues to delay the sequester by a few months. Republicans have thus far rejected any proposal that includes new revenues, insisting that the president was awarded his tax hikes during the fiscal cliff negotiations.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), argued that the White House has proffered not a single solution.
"We're glad they're laying out the consequences of President Obama's devastating sequester -- but what do they want to do to stop President Obama's devastating sequester?" Steel said in an email response to the White House briefing. "The House has acted -- twice -- to replace the sequester. Thus far, the President has no plan."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) echoed much the same in his rejoinder to the White House.
"We know the president's sequester will have consequences. What we don't know is when the president will propose a plan to replace the sequester with smarter spending cuts and reforms," McConnell said.
But Furman contended that the president has a very clear plan. He noted the offer Obama made during fiscal cliff negotiations in December "remains on the table."
That offer, according to the White House, contained a one-to-one spending cut to revenue balance, though Boehner disagreed and rejected it. Furman said that going forward, the ratio of that offer would include more cuts, since the final fiscal cliff deal achieved $600 billion in revenue absent any spending cuts. The new revenue proposals the White House is seeking include eliminating tax breaks to oil and gas companies and closing other tax loopholes for the wealthy and corporations.
Republicans insist they won't entertain new tax revenues of any kind, in effect allowing the White House to bring back its fiscal cliff strategy to frame the debate around the sequester. The administration is likely to continue to argue that Republicans are uncompromising and willing to put the economy and federal programs through calamity in order to protect the wealthiest Americans. The president could even use his upcoming State of the Union address to make that case before the entire country, though White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to offer any preview of what Obama will say.
Still, Carney was reticent to say whether Obama would veto a short-term sequester delay comprised only of spending cuts, choosing instead to reaffirm the president's commitment to a "balanced" approach.
"Balance is essential because it’s the right way to go economically, it’s the right way to go for the middle class, and it’s the way the president insists we move forward,” Carney said.
The White House believes most Americans are on its side -- the president even challenged Republicans on Thursday to debate him "before the court of public opinion." If recent polling offers any indication, Republicans are more likely to swallow the blame should sequestration become a reality.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll last month showed that nearly 55 percent of Americans think Obama is doing a good job overall, while only 24 percent could say the same of Republicans in Congress. A Quinnipiac University poll released on Friday was even more troubling for the GOP, with 51 percent of Republican voters saying they disapprove of how congressional Republicans are handling their jobs and only 41 percent saying they approve.
Read the full White House fact sheet below: