Blame and fear as sequester looms

Recriminations over the sequester reached a new pitch on Monday as the White House warned the spending cuts would leave the nation vulnerable to terrorism and Republicans called President Obama a “road show” commander in chief unconcerned with getting things done.

The escalating war of words comes just three days before the sequester is set to hit — on March 1 — and with neither side expected to back down over the central issue of including any tax hikes as part of a bill to replace the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts.

The White House ratcheted up its effort to blame the GOP for the cuts on Monday, and drew a rebuke from Republicans who accused it of employing scare tactics.

“The president needs to stop campaigning, stop trying to scare the American people, stop trying to scare states,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told reporters outside the West Wing.

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Both the White House and congressional Republicans are already eyeing March 27 as the real deadline in the dispute. Congress must approve new legislation to fund the government by then, and that measure increasingly is being seen as a vehicle for changing the sequester — if the sides can work out a deal.

Such a deal would be influenced by whichever side feels the most pressure in the ensuing weeks — which helps explain the White House’s campaign-style effort. 

The administration has spent the past week detailing the woes of the sequester, using a series of press events to highlight the expected long airport lines, reduced food inspections, teacher layoffs and new vulnerabilities to terrorism. 



Appearing at the White House briefing on Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters that the sequester “makes it awfully, awfully tough” to mitigate threats faced by the nation.


“I don’t think we can maintain the same level of security around the country with the sequester as we do without it,” Napolitano said before adding, “We will continue to preserve our frontline priorities as best we can.”  

Responding to Jindal’s criticism, Napolitano said she wasn’t there to “scare people.”

“I’m here to inform, and also to let people begin to plan, because they’re going to see these impacts in their daily lives. And they’re gonna have to adjust and make their arrangements accordingly.”

Jindal, who chairs the Republican Governors Association, said the White House’s daily events highlighting the automatic cuts are “just part of a political theater” and that Obama is “trying to distort the impact” of the sequester.

Senior administration officials dispute the argument that they are scaring the public with the consequences of the sequester, though they acknowledge they see their effort as an effective way to win leverage in talks with the GOP.

“I get the criticism behind what we’re doing, but there’s one problem with it: it totally works,” one senior administration official said. “The only time there’s a result is when there’s public pressure. All these meetings [with lawmakers] have never produced a result that anyone can point to.

“[The White House] has learned the lesson that public support is the only way this gets done,” the official added. “There is no number of meetings or golf outings that can get the Republicans where they need to be. We’ve learned that lesson and there are no reservations about that here.” 

Congressional Republicans, back from a recess, said Monday that the president wants to pummel them but is not serious about getting a deal. 

“The president proposed the sequester, yet he’s far more interested in holding campaign rallies than he is in urging Senate Democrats to actually pass a plan,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a brief Capitol news conference with the House GOP leadership team.

“This is not the time for a road show president,” added Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the third-ranking House Republican.

McCarthy’s comment was directed toward Obama’s plan to appear Tuesday in Newport News, Va., where the president will say the sequester would cost the U.S. shipbuilding industry thousands of jobs. 

Republicans are convinced that the president’s current strategy will backfire, especially if the sequester deadline passes and the public does not feel a noticeable change in the nation’s business.

“The president risks overplaying his hand,” said Ken Lundberg, a Republican strategist. “To listen to the White House, you’d think the sequester was half the federal budget and we’re headed toward a massive shutdown.”

Who wins could be determined by how the public is actually affected by the sequester. 

Economists agree that the sequester could take a toll on the economy, though it’s uncertain how much it would affect everyday life. 

Joel Prakken, chairman of Macroeconomic Advisers, said he expects the sequester would trim economic growth in 2013 from 2.6 percent to 2 percent. 

But he said most of the public might not feel such a slowdown, and if they do, they might not tie it to the Washington standoffs.

“It would, I think, be a less visible thing, and more difficult to fathom how that’s really affecting you unless you are a federal employee or you are directly affected,” said Prakken.

Mark Hopkins, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics, said there’s a lot of “guesswork” in figuring out the effects of the sequester on the economy. 

In addition, furloughs from the sequester won’t begin until April, meaning the effects of the spending cuts will be muted until after the March 27 government funding deadline. 

“Is there going to be some sort of significant change [when the sequester deadline passes]?” said Hopkins. “No, I don’t think so.”

Others believe the White House is deliberately putting the worst face possible on the sequester in an attempt to extract concessions from Republicans. 

“It sure seems to me that they are giving us the worst-case scenario,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office and economic adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during his 2008 presidential run.

“I haven’t heard anyone gloomier than them.”

— Russell Berman contributed.