White House details automatic budget cuts, calls them 'blunt, indiscriminate'

The White House released a detailed breakdown of the sequestration cuts to defense and non-defense budgets Friday, giving the clearest picture to date of where the ax will fall if lawmakers fail to prevent the automatic spending cuts with new legislation.

Cuts of approximately $110 billion are set to take effect in Jan. 3, according to an agreement reached by the administration and Congress, with half of the cuts falling on discretionary and non-discretionary defense budgets, and the other half affecting non-defense budgets.

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Discretionary spending accounts for the Defense department will be cut by 10 percent, according to the administration report. Non-discretionary funds for the Pentagon will also be reduced, but at the lower rate of 9.4 percent, according to the administration's report.

As part of those defense cuts, the White House opted to exempt spending tied to military personnel but will cut funding for war spending in Afghanistan, known as the Overseas Contingency Operations fund.

On the non-military side, discretionary accounts will be trimmed across the board by more than 8 percent, including a 2 percent cut to Medicare spending, the administration's assessment states. 

Non-discretionary accounts on the non-military side will be cut at a lower rate of 7.2 percent, according to the report.

The assessments made in the sequestration analysis are strictly "preliminary" and based on fiscal year 2012 spending levels, the White House said. 

"The Administration continues to urge Congress to avoid ... sequestration through the enactment of bipartisan balanced deficit reduction legislation," the report states. 

"Such legislation could and should replace all of the arbitrary, across-the-board reductions described in this report," the report said. "As this report illustrates, sequestration is a blunt, indiscriminate instrument and not a responsible way to make policy."

Senior administration officials reiterated those comments from the report during a conference call with reporters on Friday.

The sequestration report "gives us a window into what our [fiscal] future will be like," one senior administration official said.

While strictly preliminary assessments, the budget cuts under sequestration "should never be implemented" because the level and manner of cuts called for under sequestration represent a "blunt and indiscriminate instrument" by which to balance the budget, another senior administration official told reporters.

If a viable alternative is not reached on Capitol Hill, there is "no doubt sequestration would be ... destructive," that official added. 

Under the non-discretionary defense budget rate of 9.4 percent, wartime funding is expected to be cut by $1 million, according to estimates by the Office of Management and Budget.

Reacting to the defense portion of the spending cuts, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said the nation's fiscal crisis cannot be borne by the U.S. military alone.

"Our nation is facing a critical fiscal crisis. We must solve it, but as most have long recognized, the answer is not on the backs of our veterans. These men and women have already sacrificed on behalf of all of us, and they should not be asked to sacrifice more," Miller said in a statement issued Friday.

The budget cuts under sequestration were built into last summer’s deal to raise the debt ceiling. The cuts were designed to force a supercommittee of lawmakers to reach an agreement to cut the deficit by $1.2 trillion. The failure of the supercommittee to reach a deficit deal forces the automatic cuts, unless Congress can pass new legislation before the year is out to make deficit reductions without sequestration.

Congress passed a law requiring the report on the breakdown of the sequester in July, but the White House missed the deadline that was set for last week.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash), who helped push legislation along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to get the report done, said the White House analysis was a clear sign to Congress to get a plan together to avoid sequestration.

“This report makes it even clearer that we need to replace sequestration in a balanced way that ... includes both responsible spending cuts and new revenue from the wealthiest Americans," Murray said in a statement issued Friday.

Increasing revenues has been a main pillar in Democrats' alternative sequestration proposals.

Republicans in both chambers, however, have dug in against those increases, arguing that additional cuts to social welfare programs could be enough to offset the defense and non-defense cuts under sequestration.

In her statement, Murray hit the GOP hard on its unwillingness to consider revenue increases in any sequestration deal.

"If Republicans are serious about avoiding sequestration, then they will stop fighting to protect the rich from paying a penny more in taxes and work with us on a balanced and fair replacement," the Washington Democrat said.

Ranking member of the House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) added that "it’s the American people who will pay the price for Republican intransigence" if continued political gridlock on sequestration leads to those budget cuts becoming reality.

In May, Van Hollen led a block of House Democrats in proposing a alternative sequester plan implementing cuts to government farm subsidies and ending federal payouts to oil companies as a way to pay for the Pentagon's portion of sequestration.

The plan spearheaded by Van Hollen included changes "recommended by every bipartisan commission studying our fiscal situation," the Maryland Democrat said in a statement issued the same day.

"Unfortunately, congressional Republicans would not even allow a vote" on the measure, he added.

For their part, Republicans have criticized the Obama administration for missing the deadline last week, as they have attacked the president for not having a plan to reverse sequestration.

While White House officials did not go into details as to why the deadline was missed, they said the delay was caused by administration officials doing their due diligence to get the findings in the report right.

"We were given thirty days," the second administration official said. "There is a lot of legal work done here to produce this and we wanted to produce a through report as fast as we could."

On Friday, White House officials were also pressed on why the administration relented at issuing a sequestration impact report at all, and why it took an act of Congress to get the report done.

In response, the first administration official said the White House wanted Congress to focus on planning and strategizing ways to avoid sequestration, not preparing for when the cuts go into effect in January.

Issuing a report like the one released Friday would have served as a distraction to lawmakers' efforts to come up with a sequestration alternative, the official said.

—Updated at 2:46 p.m., 4:01 p.m. and 4:22 p.m.