The tight presidential race has all but ensured that Congress will not pass a bill before the election that would halt sequestration cuts to the military.
President Obama and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney have traded barbs over sequestration as the issue has amplified on the campaign trail in recent weeks.
The result has become into a war of words between the campaigns over who’s to blame for letting sequestration become law — and who’s the roadblock now to preventing the across-the-board cuts.
Sequestration, which would cut $500 billion over 10 years to both defense and non-defense spending, was included as a punitive measure in the debt-limit deal reached last year. Both parties overwhelmingly say the cuts should not take effect and are bad policy, but there’s been little movement toward actually reaching a deal in the past year.
Part of the reason that’s unlikely to change between now and November is that both Democrats and Republicans see sequestration as a winning issue on the campaign trail. The defense cuts themselves have been wrapped into the larger debate about taxes, and each side says the other is willing to harm the military in order to get its way on the Bush tax rates.
Republicans in Congress, as well as Romney and his vice presidential pick Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have hammered Obama for being “AWOL” on sequestration and not proposing a plan to stop the cuts.
Romney and Republicans in Congress point to their House-passed budget — authored by Ryan — as the solution to halt the sequester, as it would undo the first year of cuts to defense. In May, the GOP-led House passed a measure 218-199 to override the Pentagon cuts with spending reductions to food stamps and other social programs. The Republican bill has no chance of passing the Democratic-led Senate.
At a rally in North Carolina Thursday, Ryan said that the House “has already acted to prevent it from happening.”
“The Senate has done nothing. The president has proposed no solution to this,” he said. “I remember hauling up the president's budget director… We asked them, ‘If you’re not going to propose a solution to this problem like we have done, what is your solution?’ We've heard nothing yet.”
An Obama administration official said the GOP charge that the president hasn’t proposed a solution is “completely false.”
“The president put forward specific recommendations to the supercommittee — and put forward in his budget — a balanced plan that would have over $4 trillion in deficit reduction,” the official said, referring to the president’s fiscal 2013 budget.
Obama took on sequestration directly in interviews this week with local TV stations from three key battleground states — Virginia, Ohio and Florida — which all have a military presence.
“The only thing that's standing in the way of us solving this problem right now is the unwillingness of some members of Congress to ask people like me — people who've done very well, millionaires, billionaires — to pay a little bit more, in part, to preserve the freedoms that we hold dear,” Obama said in an interview Monday with The Virginian-Pilot. “There's no reason we can't get a deficit-reduction package that takes sequestration completely off the table.”
The tax increases in Obama’s budget would undo sequestration, and the House-passed bill would thwart defense cuts. But neither is politically palatable in a divided Congress. Republicans frequently say that the president’s budget did not receive a single vote the House or Senate, while Democrats say the House’s approach is dead on arrival in the upper chamber.
On Capitol Hill, senators have said for several months that they are holding informal, bipartisan meetings to try to avert the cuts, which at this point is the most likely avenue for a solution.
But with little movement thus far, Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) launched a cross-country sequestration tour through battleground states to highlight the danger of the cuts.
The senators have frequently called on Obama to come to Capitol Hill to negotiate a solution as they’ve tried to pressure the administration to do more on the sequester.
“So far, he’s missing in action. So far, he’s certainly not carrying out his responsibilities as commander in chief,” McCain told The Hill before as Congress left for its August recess, saying he was “going to continue” to pressure Obama on the cuts.
House Armed Services ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said in an interview that Republican attacks on Obama are unfair, and that Republicans had yet to propose any realistic solutions themselves.
“I don't think the president has ducked that responsibility at all,” Smith said. “Whatever responsibility he has, the nature of our system here is that he can't solve on his own. He needs the House and Senate with him.”
Graham, who has suggested Republicans need to put some revenue on the table, told The Hill as he left for recess that “come September, I’m going to be more forceful, because we’re running out of time.”
“I hope there’s pressure on the president, on Romney, on all of us,” Graham said. “It’s not just the president I’m trying to put pressure on. He happens to be the commander in chief.”
—Amie Parnes contributed.