Doom, gloom, and … yawn

Congress As President Obama issues dire warnings about Friday’s sequester, lawmakers say their constituents are mostly unfazed | Edward Lee Pitts

Doom, gloom, and … yawn

President Obama gestures while speaking about the sequester in Newport News, Va., Tuesday.
Associated Press/Photo by Charles Dharapak

WASHINGTON—The White House has been doing its best to make this a very stressful week for Americans.

President Barack Obama stood before shipbuilders in Newport News, Va., Tuesday warning how the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts set to begin Friday will cripple the defense industry.

Attorney General Eric Holder has predicted that after the cuts take place “the American people are going to be less safe.”

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The Obama administration even blamed the cuts, called the sequester, for the release this week of hundreds of illegal immigrants held in detention facilities.

“I’m supposed to have 34,000 detention beds for immigration,” Secretary Homeland Security Janet Napolitano told reporters Monday. “How do I pay for those?”

In full campaign mode, the White House has pulled out all the stops in its quest to inject a sense of doom and gloom over the impending cuts that are worth $1.2 trillion over the next decade, including $85 billion this year. ‪ But several conservative lawmakers Wednesday said the White House’s scare tactics are not resonating outside of the Capital Beltway.

“We had a grand total of three calls concerned about it yesterday,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Republican who represents portions of 69 counties in western and central Kansas. “Folks are recognizing that Washington, D.C., is over-blowing and over-playing. I think most Americans are going to wake up Friday morning and yawn.”

The furor is over $85 billion in reductions out of the federal government’s $3.6 trillion annual federal budget. That $85 billion also represents a slice of the federal government’s $1.1 trillion annual deficit.

Still, Huelskamp hopes some Americans will look at the cuts, amounting to 5 percent of nonmilitary programs (excluding most entitlements) and 8 percent of defense programs, and feel some encouragement that lawmakers are at least starting to tackle the nation’s debt and deficit problems.

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said an educator in his state called him this week about a White House warning that the state would lose 50 teachers if lawmakers did not act to avert the sequester by Friday. But, according to Labrador, the educator was not fazed because he knew that the education system is operating under 2012 budget allotments.

“There is no possible way that we are going to lose any teachers right now,” said Labrador, who added that potential losses of teachers a year from now provides education systems time to deal with the issue through budgeting and attrition. “For the president to go to the nation and say that we are going to lose teachers, lose cops, and we can’t do anything about these naval vessels is pretty shameful.”

One stop the president’s political road show has not made: Capitol Hill. Republicans in Congress say Obama is welcome to provide alternatives to the sequester that keep the cuts but dole them out in less blunt ways. Last year the House passed two proposals that replaced the broad cuts with more targeted alternatives. Most congressional conservatives favor cuts that take a smaller slice out of the defense budget. But the Senate did not act on the legislation.

“It’s a mile and a half up Pennsylvania Ave. from the White House to the Hill,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C. “But yet [Obama] has traveled some 5,600 miles around the country to stand before different groups to try to beat the GOP up. I’d invite him to just travel a shorter distance, save fuel in Air Force One, save the taxpayer money, and get to work. There is more to governing than fancy speeches.”

Obama did journey to the Capitol on Wednesday, but it was for a ceremony unveiling a new statue honoring civil rights icon Rosa Parks. Budget talks with Congress were not on the president’s agenda.

Republican lawmakers say that the president, as the nation’s chief executive, has the power to manage federal agencies in ways that ensure essential services are not hurt by the sequester. They argue that the White House’s persistent warnings about potential repercussions, such as less security and longer lines at airports, reflects an unwillingness by the Obama administration to make tough governing decisions.

“The reason you hear the president talking about not being able to get food inspected is because that’s exactly what he wants,” said Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C. “He wants a crisis, and he wants to try and blame it on us. He is simply … going to chose to ignore this responsibility in order to lay political blame.”

Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., points out that his state has faced a similar budget crisis over the last five years. Arizona state budget for 2013 is $8.6 billion, a sizeable reduction from previous years. In 2011 alone, Arizona lawmakers approved $1.1 billion in budget cuts.

“And there hasn’t been blood in the streets and it hasn’t been chaos,” Salmon said. “The fact is all the governors across the country have had to manage through some very, very difficult times because they had to lead. They don’t just pontificate and campaign. They have to make the trains run on time, and they have to take care of people.”

The White House’s scare tactics have not just offended Republican lawmakers. Journalist Bob Woodward of The Washington Post has called Obama’s sequester strategy “a kind of madness.” Woodward took particular exception to a Pentagon announcement this month that the USS Harry Truman would not deploy to the Persian Gulf due to sequestration.

“Under the Constitution, the president is commander in chief and employs the force,” Woodward said Wednesday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “And so we now have the president going out, because of this piece of paper and this agreement, [saying] I can’t do what I need to do to protect the country. That’s a kind of madness that I haven’t seen in a long time.”

Most conservative lawmakers believe the cuts will occur on Friday. They also believe that it won’t be the end of the world. And they hope the White House will soon stop complaining about them and start managing them.

“It is beyond bluff,” said Rep. Salmon. “This is real. It is going to happen. They need to deal with it.”

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