House Dems call for 'immediate' talks on grand debt bargain

Senior Democrats are pushing GOP leaders to replace the looming sequester cuts with a bipartisan bargain on deficit reduction.

In a letter sent Wednesday to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and all the GOP committee heads, the lawmakers urged the Republicans to start "immediate negotiations" on "a balanced deficit reduction plan" that would prevent automatic sequester cuts from taking effect next year.

"We all agree that a sequester starting in January 2013 is not in the country’s best interest and is not the best way to assure responsible deficit reduction," the lawmakers wrote. "The American people want us to work together to avoid unnecessary economic uncertainty at this crucial time in our recovery."

The Democrats want to begin the talks before the August recess — which begins at the end of next week — in hopes of reaching a deal before the end of September.  

"Failure to reach an agreement," they added, "would have devastating consequences for our economy, small business and the middle class."

The letter was signed by the senior Democrat on every committee in the House.

Enacted last August as part of the bipartisan deal to raise the debt ceiling, the sequester consists of roughly $1.1 trillion in cuts to defense and discretionary domestic spending over the next decade. 

The unpopular cuts were designed to be the bludgeon that would motivate the fiscal supercommittee — a 12-member bipartisan panel created by the same law — to reach agreement on an alternative deficit reduction plan. When the panel failed in that effort, it triggered the sequester, leaving lawmakers in both parties scrambling this year in search of a way to stave off the $109 billion in cuts scheduled for 2013 alone.

Republicans have focused their concerns largely on the defense cuts, blaming President Obama for threatening national security.

"The president's policies have … exposed the military to cuts that no one can justify," GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said Tuesday at the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention in Nevada.

Democrats are quick to note that Republican leaders not only helped to enact the sequestration language, but forced its inclusion by opposing any debt-ceiling increase that wasn't accompanied by sharp cuts in federal spending. 

"The sequester was adopted with overwhelming Republican support," Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, said Wednesday during a breakfast in Washington sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. "Romney is dead flat wrong. It's got nothing to do with the president."

A growing chorus of Democrats, meanwhile, is warning of the effects of the sequester's domestic cuts on social programs. 

"Some members of Congress warn that defense contracting firms will lay off employees if sequestration goes into effect,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said Wednesday. “They say nothing of the tens of thousands of teachers, police officers and other public servants in communities all across America who would also lose their jobs.”

The central barrier to any deficit grand bargain remains the issue of taxes. Republicans are opposed to any new tax increases, arguing instead that Congress should balance the budget with spending cuts, including reductions in entitlement spending. Democrats disagree, maintaining that a "balanced" approach – consisting of some combination of spending cuts, tax hikes and entitlement reforms – is the only viable formula.

"We are confident that we can identify revenue sources and prioritize investments in a bipartisan fashion to avoid the sequester while achieving our deficit reduction goals," the House ranking members wrote Wednesday.

Hoyer, for his part, echoed the popular sentiment by saying he isn't optimistic that any such deal is likely before this year's elections.

"I do not believe that we will get to any kind of agreement prior to Nov. 6," he said.

The Maryland Democrat argued that, although America has the resources to solve its fiscal problems, it has lacked a Congress with the political will to make difficult choices. 

"Tough decisions will have to be made," Hoyer warned. "Either we will make them or they will be made for us. 

"If they're made for us," he added, “the results will be far worse."

Endorsing the letter were Democratic Reps. Collin Peterson (Minn.) of the Agriculture Committee, Norm Dicks (Wash.) of the Appropriations Committee, Adam Smith (Wash.) of the Armed Services Committee, Chris Van Hollen (Md.) of the Budget Committee, George Miller (Calif.) of the Education and Workforce Committee, Henry Waxman (Calif.) of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Linda Sanchez (Calif.) of the Ethics Committee, Barney Frank (Mass.) of the Financial Services Committee, Howard Berman (Calif.) of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Bennie Thompson (Miss.) of the Homeland Security Committee, Robert Brady (Pa.) of the Committee on Administration, John Conyers (Mich.) of the Judiciary Committee, Edward Markey (Mass.) of the Natural Resources panel, Elijah Cummings (Md.) of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Louise Slaughter (N.Y.) of the Rules Committee, Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas) of the Committee on Science, Space, & Technology, Nydia M. Velazquez (N.Y.) of the Small Business Committee, Nick Rahall (WVa.) of the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, Bob Filner (Calif.) of the Veterans' Affairs Committee and Sander Levin (Mich.) of the Ways and Means Committee.