President Obama will look to ratchet up pressure on congressional Republicans to strike a deal averting the sequester with an event Tuesday highlighting the impact of the $85 billion in cuts on the nation's first-responders.
Obama, returning from a vacation with just 10 days before the March 1 deadline when the across-the-board cuts are triggered, is scheduled to speak at 10:45 a.m. at the White House.
Negotiations to avert the sequester — which will hit both the Pentagon and non-defense discretionary spending — have reached an impasse, with both sides more focused on avoiding blame for the looming cuts than preventing them.
Republicans have said they will only agree to a plan that fully replaces the sequester with other, targeted spending cuts. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, passed a bill endorsed by the White House that evenly balances future spending cuts with new tax revenues created by closing loopholes and deductions for the wealthiest Americans.
According to a White House official, Obama hopes to aggressively pressure congressional Republicans, depicting the choice over the sequester as one between protecting healthcare and national defense or protecting tax loopholes for the wealthiest Americans.
"With less than two weeks before these cuts hit, the President will challenge Republicans to make a very simple choice: do they protect investments in education, healthcare and national defense, or do they continue to prioritize and protect tax loopholes that benefit the very few at the expense of middle- and working-class Americans?" the White House official said.
Central to that effort, the president will seek to highlight instances of how the sequester could affect ordinary taxpayers. The president is expected to note that if the sequester is triggered, grants for firefighters and state and local emergency management personnel will be slashed. Moreover, he will continue to use his bully pulpit to argue that implementation could wipe out the fragile economic recovery.
Tuesday’s address is only the latest effort by the president to turn public opinion against the spending cuts and set Republicans up to take the blame if the sequester goes into effect.
In his State of the Union address last week and in speeches across the nation, Obama has pressed GOP lawmakers to agree to a “balanced” approach with cuts and revenues to replace the sequester.
Both sides, though, are digging in their heels, with little time left to reach an accord.
Republicans argue that Democrats must rein in the nation's deficit to stabilize the economy, and see the sequester as an opportunity to reduce government spending. GOP leaders also argue that having allowed higher revenues in January’s “fiscal cliff” agreement, the focus should now be on spending cuts.
"Americans do not support sacrificing real spending cuts for more tax hikes," Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said earlier this month, pledging to oppose legislation that called for more revenues.
House Republicans have also made a concerted effort to remind voters that it was the Obama administration that originally suggested the idea of the sequester during negotiations over the debt ceiling. GOP leaders have repeatedly underscored that fact in press briefings, and conservative social media accounts refer to the looming cuts as the "Obamaquester."
Democrats, though, led by the president are hopeful pressure from the public and business groups, which are wary of economic uncertainty, will bring the GOP back to the table.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Sunday predicted the pressure would work, saying that Democrats held "the high ground both substantively and politically" in the debate over the sequester.
"Republicans will come on board. They have no choice," he added.
With neither side seemingly ready to blink, many in Washington are predicting that the budget cuts will at least temporarily go into effect — casting potential chaos on departmental budgets and the economy as a whole. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said that implementation of the sequester could reduce hiring by three-quarters of a million Americans through 2013, and slow economic growth across the board.
"It's pretty clear to me that the sequester is going to go into effect," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last week. "I see no evidence that the House plans to act on this matter before the end of the month."
McConnell, who has helped shepherd through last-minute deals in recent battles over the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff, has also said that he does not expect to play a similar role this time around.
“Read my lips: I am not interested in an eleventh-hour negotiation,” McConnell said.