Congressional Republicans are preparing to let $85 billion in automatic spending cuts begin to bite March 1, saying they have become convinced that letting the “sequesters” take effect is the only way they will be able to wrangle real spending cuts from President Obama.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and other Republicans are talking increasingly tough about the sequesters, saying they are willing to accept the deep cuts to military and domestic spending in order to force Mr. Obama to come up with his own counteroffer.
“What happens on March the 1st is, spending goes down automatically,” Mr. Ryan said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We are more than happy to keep spending at those levels going on into the future while we debate how to balance the budget, how to grow the economy, how to create economic opportunity.”
The move is politically tricky and not accepted by some defense-hawk Republicans in the Senate.
It also comes at a time when the U.S. economy is contracting — the gross domestic product shrunk by 0.1 percent at the end of last year, according to numbers released Wednesday. The White House said slower defense spending last year helped push the economy into contraction and that even the mere threat of sequesters was part of the problem.
“The GDP number we saw today was driven in part by — in large part by — a sharp decrease in defense spending, the sharpest drop since, I think, 1972. And at least some of that has to do with the uncertainty created by the prospect of sequester,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney.
He added it was “disheartening” to hear Mr. Boehner and other Republican leaders in Congress talk about the sequester as a bargaining chip.
“It’s not a game. It’s the American economy,” Mr. Carney said. “Talk about letting the sequester kick in as though that were an acceptable thing belies where Republicans were on this issue not that long ago, and it makes clear again that this is sort of political brinkmanship of the kind that results in one primary victim, and that’s American taxpayers, the American middle class.”
The sequester issue is one of three spending fights Congress must grapple with in the first half of this year. The other two are the federal debt limit, which lawmakers are poised to waive for three months, and the annual spending bills, whose funding expires in late March and must be renewed.
Republicans have concluded that the sequesters — set into motion by the 2011 debt deal and agreed to by Mr. Obama — offer their best immediate chances for real spending cuts.
“I’m a defense hawk. I’m worried about the draconian cuts to the Pentagon,” said Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, Texas Republican. “At the same time, I think we realize the president is not willing to give us spending cuts so far, and that these are the cuts we have in hand, and many conservatives are loath to relinquish that.”
Mr. Cornyn said he thinks the sequester cuts likely will kick in March 1, but he is hopeful that a deal will be reached soon afterward to stop them.
The cuts “will hopefully prompt more serious negotiations and discussions about how to reallocate the cuts so it doesn’t fall quite so heavy on the Defense Department,” he said.
But other defense hawks, such as Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, say increased saber-rattling by Iran and other U.S. adversaries means now is not the time for Pentagon cutbacks. They also warn that defense contractors already are cutting jobs.
“The world is blowing up. I can’t imagine a more devastating signal to send to the Iranians and our enemies and our friends alike than to dismantle the military,” Mr. Graham said. “In a body that’s known for doing pretty dumb things, this to me wins the prize.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has promised to work with Republicans to ward off sequestration. But he has insisted that any compromise include tax increases — setting up a clash with Republicans, who are in no mood to concede on the issue again after giving in to Mr. Obama’s demand to include tax increases as part of the New Year’s Eve deal to avoid the “fiscal cliff.”
Americans “believe that there could be a better way of dealing with defense [cuts] than this meat cleaver that sequestration does,” Mr. Reid told reporters Tuesday. “But part of it, the American people agree, should be the wealthiest people in America paying a little bit more, and there should be a balance of spending cuts and revenue.”
• Dave Boyer contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.