Boehner: Mr. President, help stop the automatic cuts to Defense spending

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) urged President Obama on Thursday to intercede in the growing congressional effort to change the automatic spending cuts to military and domestic programs triggered by the supercommittee’s failure to strike a deal.

The $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts will take effect in 2013, and Republican leaders, along with some Democrats, want to change them to protect the military.

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has sounded repeated warnings about the negative effect the Pentagon cuts would have on the military. But Obama has threatened to veto any effort to undo the trigger, known as sequestration, because the White House is still pushing for a broad deficit pact that includes tax increases.

By calling for talks with the president, Boehner appears to be putting the damper on efforts to alter the triggers right away as part of a deal on extending payroll taxes, something Boehner’s deputy, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), has been trying to do.

“I really believe that the president of the United States has a responsibility here as well,” Boehner told reporters. “He’s the commander in chief; he knows what those cuts will mean to the military, and so I frankly believe the Congress still must work with the president to find a solution to our long-term debt.”

The Speaker is in a difficult position when it comes to the automatic cuts. He negotiated the August agreement that put them in place, and said last month that he felt “morally bound” to stick to the trigger, which was created as an incentive for the supercommittee to come to a deal that would include substantial cuts to entitlement programs Boehner feels are needed to save the country from fiscal ruin.

But with concerns mounting within his own party, he has opened the door to changing the cuts so long as the minimum of $1.2 trillion in budget savings is maintained.

“No one really wants to go there,” Boehner said, referring to sequestration.

Cantor has been talking to Democrats and Republicans about replacing the first year of cuts to the Pentagon and domestic spending, set to be implemented in 2013, with cuts agreed to by both parties in deficit talks last summer led by Vice President Biden. The ideas are similar to cuts proposed to the supercommittee by President Obama.

Cantor would use the savings to pay for a one-year extension of the payroll-tax cut and an extension of federal unemployment insurance benefits, both of which are set to expire by the end of the year.

Aides acknowledge that any attempt to find a bargain before the House’s target adjournment date of Dec. 16 is an uphill battle. The House Republican Conference is meeting on Friday to consider ideas for dealing with year-end issues like the payroll tax cut and an extension of unemployment insurance benefits, but a leadership aide said proposals for changing the trigger were unlikely to be discussed. The aide also said it was unlikely the trigger would be altered before Congress adjourns for the year.

Cantor has reached out to members like Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), but key Democrats who are open to changing the sequester, like Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), say they have not been approached on any year-end deal yet by Cantor.

Clyburn said on MSNBC on Monday that “I don’t think we’re locked into sequester in its current format.”

Despite Clyburn’s remarks, many Democrats feel they have the upper hand in talks next year over the sequesters and extending the Bush-era tax cuts.

During the August debt-ceiling talks, they were able to exempt cuts to entitlement benefits from the triggers. 

Many liberals are comfortable with the defense cuts. Reps. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Jim Himes (D-Conn.) and George Miller (D-Calif.) are preparing a letter urging Obama to ensure the sequestration process goes forward. That letter has about 50 signatures, aides said.

By contrast, other House Democrats have introduced legislation to prevent automatic cuts to Medicare from going forward. Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) and six other Democrats introduced a bill to exempt Medicare from the sequester. Towns said Wednesday that hospitals would not be able to cope with the reduced Medicare reimbursements that would result.

— Pete Kasperowicz contributed to this report.


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