David Rogers - President Barack Obama signaled his openness to larger deficit-reduction talks with Congress on Tuesday but drew a sharp line at the immediate spending cuts proposed by the House, even suggesting that Republicans were jeopardizing the Pentagon’s ability to “meet vital military requirements.”
The thinly veiled veto threat was delivered in a formal statement of administration policy just hours after debate opened in the House on the Republican plan.
And the suggestion that Republicans risked hurting the nation’s defense amounts to an especially hardball political response designed to play on divisions in the GOP over the level of Pentagon cuts.
“The bill proposes cuts that would sharply undermine core government functions and investments key to economic growth and job creation and would reduce funding for the Department of Defense to a level that would leave the department without the resources and flexibility needed to meet vital military requirements,” the statement read. “If the president is presented with a bill that undermines critical priorities or national security through funding levels or restrictions, contains earmarks or curtails the drivers of long-term economic growth and job creation while continuing to burden future generations with deficits, the president will veto the bill.”
In fact, Republicans have already sworn to keep all earmarks out of the bill, and their primary focus remains domestic and foreign-aid spending. But under pressure to meet the goal of cutting $100 billion from Obama’s 2011 requests, the House Appropriations Committee agreed to cut $15 billion from what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had requested for 2011.
In the early rounds of the floor debate Tuesday, the $516.2 billion defense chapter of the bill was the first up for amendments — and the immediate target of more spending cuts offered by newly elected conservatives.
Pro-defense forces prevailed in the first series of votes last night. But House Armed House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) has grown increasingly agitated with the level of cuts and most fears the prospect that, unless the spending impasse is resolved soon, it will be impossible to get a final defense budget in place.
“Whatever it takes, we need to get a bill,” McKeon told POLITICO.
But going to his friend Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), and seeking relief, was not an option at this stage. “Boehner’s in a box right now,” McKeon said of the pressure on the leadership from the right and tea party freshmen. “Boehner’s got parameters that he has to work within.”
“They [the speaker and GOP leadership] worked out what they thought was workable, and the freshmen and other conservatives kind of told them it wasn’t enough. He has to get some kind of deal.”
In this light, the White House veto threat fits into a Democratic strategy of standing back, perhaps poking at the Republican majority but largely hoping that divisions arise within the GOP itself.
For example, South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, a member of the Democratic leadership, delivered emotional remarks during a news conference on the education cuts in the bill — speaking of the impact on districts, like his own, that have a large concentration of poverty and on as many as seven historically black colleges targeted by the GOP.
“You explain to me how that will provide us the wherewithal to compete,” Clyburn said of the cuts. “They’ve just gone in with a meat ax chopping stuff out in order to get to some magic number without regard to what this means to the people that we are trying to prepare for the future and what it means to this country if we are going to compete.”
But limited by the rules governing debate, restoring funding would be difficult, and Clyburn appears to be focusing on directing what remains to the areas of greatest need.
Senate Democrats are Obama’s real line of defense, but in turn, the president is under pressure there to show that he is willing to make more of a commitment to a longer-term deficit reduction scheme akin to suggestions that came out of his presidential commission last year.
“I’m not suggesting that we don’t have to do more,” Obama said at the White House, in the face of criticism that his new budget fell short of the mark.
“It’s a matter of everybody having a serious conversation about where we want to go and then ultimately getting in that boat at the same time so it doesn’t tip over.”
“Congress and the president always have this dance,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). “This is the beginning of the question, if at the end of the day you can have a dramatic agreement, I still think it’s very possible. This time it’s different.”
And whatever the disappointment with Obama’s budget, those dreaming bigger still met Tuesday morning and reported progress on their own efforts.
“My personal thing is the numbers are wrong, it’s highly inaccurate and doesn’t go near where we need to be, and I think they realize that,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) of the White House. “This is the first bid. It is a negotiating chip.”