Obama: $85 billion sequester cuts 'not going to be an apocalypse'

The sequester is “dumb” but is “not going to be an apocalypse,” President Obama said Friday following a White House meeting with congressional leaders.

The White House has been playing up what it says will be the devastating effects to the economy and military as a result of the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts.

ADVERTISEMENT
But Obama on Friday said the nation will survive the sequester, though he said it would be painful for many people.

“We will get through this. This is not going to be an apocalypse, I think as some people have said,” Obama said following the 52-minute meeting with lawmakers.

“It's just dumb. And it's going to hurt. It's going to hurt individual people and it's going to hurt the economy over all,” he said.

The sequester is set to begin on Friday and will cause across-the-board cuts to defense and domestic discretionary spending. Thousands of federal workers are expected to be furloughed, but not until April, so the pain from the cuts will be felt over time.

Obama placed blame over the failure to reach a deal to prevent the cuts set to begin Friday squarely on Republicans, and sought to present himself as the reasonable party in the budget negotiations during his press conference.

He insisted public opinion is on his side but that voters must convince congressional Republicans to move.

“The issue is not my persuasive power,” Obama said. “The American people agree with my approach. The question is, can the American people persuade their members of Congress to do the right thing?”

He also cast himself as willing to move on entitlement reforms if Republicans moved on taxes. 

“I’m prepared to take up the [deficit] problem where it exists, on entitlements, and do some thing that my party may not like,” said Obama, who added that a silent "commonsense caucus" of Democrats and Republicans was willing to reach such a deal. “I am prepared to do hard things and push my Democratic friends to do hard things,” he said.

Lawmakers and Obama appeared to make no progress toward a resolution during the meeting.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters the House has already voted twice on measures to replace the sequester, and “shouldn't have to pass a third bill.”

He also reiterated his position that Republicans will accept no new tax hikes to replace the sequester, something demanded by Obama and Democrats.

“The discussion about revenue is over,” Boehner said.

Inside the meeting, Boehner delivered a message personally to Obama and the other congressional leaders that he has given repeatedly to reporters and privately to the House Republican Conference in recent days. 

The Speaker urged Obama and Senate Democrats to present a plan to replace the sequester that could pass the Democratic-led Senate, according to a summary of the meeting provided by Boehner’s office. And in a sign the Speaker has little interest in trekking back-and-forth to the White House for high-level private negotiations, he “suggested the most productive way to resolve the sequester issue will be through regular order,” Boehner’s office said.

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) also attended the meeting.

McConnell warned in the meeting that any deal to change the sequester should be done in regular order and not in a backroom with no input from Senate Republicans, according to a source familiar with the meeting. 

While Republicans want to pursue tax reform, a significant gap remains between what they want to achieve in the effort and what Democrats are demanding. Boehner has ruled out raising any additional tax revenue, a position his office said he made clear in the meeting.

“It’s time to focus on spending, the Speaker told the group,” Boehner’s office said. “The Republican leaders reiterated their willingness to close tax loopholes, but not as a replacement for the sequester’s spending cuts, saying any revenue generated by closing tax loopholes should be used to lower tax rates and create jobs.”

The president and the congressional leaders appeared to find at least one area of agreement, on the need to prevent a government shutdown by passing a stopgap spending bill before funding expires on March 27.

Boehner said the House planned to pass a continuing resolution next week to keep the government open through September. That bill will assume the continuation of the sequestration cuts and is likely to include a separate appropriations measure funding the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments. At his news conference after the meeting, Obama indicated he did not object to that approach.

— Published at 11:56 a.m. and updated at 1:42 p.m.