President Obama’s vow at Monday’s debate that the sequestration cuts “will not happen” could come back to haunt him during Congress's lame-duck negotiations on the fiscal cliff if he is reelected.
Republicans were already licking their chops at Obama’s statement Tuesday, and the White House was quickly backtracking the remark after the debate.
“He has, which is why White House aides were immediately trying to walk it back,” said one GOP House aide.
The Pentagon cuts were supposed to be more painful for defense hawks in the Republican Party and force them to agree to a deal that raises taxes by closing loopholes. Democrats have floated ending tax breaks for oil companies and imposing a minimum tax on millionaires as part of a sequester replacement deal.
The GOP aide said that this tactical mistake would cost Obama votes in Virginia, a swing-state with many military service members and defense industry workers.
“Ads are being run on the issue. Obama says it won't happen and his aides immediately say, ‘Wait a sec ...’ ” the aide said.
“It’s interesting that he’s taken the sequester off the table — even though he’s the one that put it there,” said a Senate aide.
White House senior adviser David Plouffe tried to clarify Obama's remark on sequestration to reporters in the spin room after the debate. Plouffe said the president was explaining that no one in Washington thinks the across-the-board cuts “should happen."
“No one wants it to happen. ... No one thinks it should happen," Plouffe said, according to reports.
Both Democrats and Republicans agree that the $1 trillion sequester cuts should not occur, but the two sides have been deadlocked for more than a year over how to find alternate deficit reduction to replace them.
The sequestration cuts, which are set to take effect on Jan. 2, have become wrapped up in the fiscal cliff deliberations in the lame-duck session.
Obama has said previously that he does not want the cuts to occur, but he’s threatened to veto any bills that do away with them without a “balanced” solution to replace the cuts, which hit both defense and non-defense discretionary spending.
But on Monday, Obama was direct in saying the cuts simply would not happen, as he defended himself against an attack from GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney that he was responsible for the defense cuts.
“The sequester is not something that I proposed. It’s something that Congress has proposed,” Obama said. “It will not happen.”
Republicans who have attacked the president and Senate Democrats for not making their own proposals to stop sequestration expressed surprise at the remark.
“It is a nice line, but for more than a year the President hasn't lifted a finger to avert the crisis,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said in an email. “If the President is determined that these cuts won't happen, why has he drug it out this long?”
“I was stunned to hear that sequestration won’t happen,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on a Republican National Committee (RNC) conference call Tuesday, adding that Obama was showing “hubris and arrogance” because he needs agreement from Congress to stop it.
“Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and I and others, including Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), have been begging the president to sit down with us to avoid what his own Secretary of Defense said would be devastating to national security,” McCain added.
Republicans also said Obama was being misleading when he said Congress had proposed the sequester in the August 2011 debt-ceiling deal. They argue, citing Bob Woodward’s Price of Politics, that the White House floated the sequester as part of its supercommittee proposal to avoid having another debt-ceiling showdown before the election.
Democrats accuse Republicans of causing the gridlock on sequestration to prevent tax increases on the wealthy.
This story was updated at 12:17 p.m.