Obama says sequester would take 'meat cleaver' to government

President Obama warned Tuesday that allowing $85 billion in automatic spending cuts to go forward would take a “meat cleaver approach” to reducing the deficit.

Obama cast Republicans as unwilling to compromise on a plan to avert the cuts, arguing their refusal to agree to additional tax hikes along with different spending cuts was preventing a deal from being struck. He said the cuts could hurt the economy and the military and lead to the furloughs of first responders.

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"If Congress allows this meat cleaver approach to take place, it will jeopardize our military readiness," Obama said. 

“Are you willing to see a bunch of first responders lose their jobs because you want to protect some special interest loophole?” Obama said from the White House, where he was surrounded by emergency personnel who could be furloughed or laid off if the cuts move forward.

“Are you willing to see teachers laid off or kids lose access to Head Start?” he said.

The event was the latest effort by Obama to increase pressure on House Republicans, who have repeatedly argued it was the president himself who agreed to include the sequester as part of a 2011 deal to raise the debt ceiling.

After accepting $600 billion in tax increases and no spending cuts as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal, the GOP says it is unwilling to replace the sequester with anything other than a plan to reduce spending.

They argue Obama is presenting a false choice and note that the wealthiest Americans already saw their tax rates rise in January’s deal. Now, the GOP argues, it is time for Obama to confront the nation's spiraling debt.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Obama has failed to offer a credible alternative to the sequester.

“Washington Democrats’ newfound concern about the president’s sequester is appreciated, but words alone won’t avert it," he said. "Replacing the president’s sequester will require a plan to cut spending that will put us on the path to a budget that is balanced in 10 years. To keep these first responders on the job, what other spending is the president willing to cut?”

Obama argued the sequester will impose real pain on real people if Congress does not take action, and said Republicans were accepting painful spending cuts to protect “special interest” tax breaks.

Democrats would replace the sequester in part with a new tax law requiring millionaires to pay at least a 30 percent tax on their total income. The “Buffett rule” proposal, named after investor Warren Buffett who has advocated it, would ensure people whose primary income derives from their investments face a higher tax rate.

Obama emphasized the effect the cuts would have on the economy, warning they would “add hundreds of thousands of Americans to the unemployment rolls.”

“This is not an abstraction,” Obama said. “People will lose their jobs. The unemployment rate might tick up again.”

House Republicans have 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.”

Republicans also criticize Obama for not reaching out to them to try to reach a deal, a point White House press secretary Jay Carney pushed back at on Tuesday.

"The president has made clear his door is open," Carney said. "What we've heard from Congressional Republicans is categorical refusal." 

Carney said there's been "regular communication" between the White House and Capitol Hill, but added, "I don't have any conversations with the Hill to read out to you."

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 implementation of the sequester could reduce hiring by three-quarters of a million Americans through 2013, and slow economic growth across the board.

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the Tuesday event with first responders showed Obama was more interested in campaigning then providing a plan to prevent the sequester.

“Today's event at the White House proves once again that more than three months after the November election, President Obama still prefers campaign events to common sense, bipartisan action,” he said. 

McConnell, who has helped shepherd through last-minute deals in recent battles over the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff, has said that he does not expect to play a similar role this time around.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday it was time for Republicans to "get off the sidelines." 

"Republicans’ position is untenable, but only time will tell how many people must lose their jobs before Republicans listen to the overwhelming majority of Americans, and work with Democrats to forge a balanced approach," Reid added.

This story was posted at 11:26 and last updated at 12:23 p.m.