A forthcoming book could give new ammunition to Republican hawks eager to blame the Obama administration for looming, across-the-board cuts to the defense budget.
The book “The Price of Politics,” by Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Woodward, makes it clear the idea for the draconian spending cuts originated in the White House – and not in Congress.
According to the book, excerpts of which were obtained by POLITICO ahead of the Sept. 11 release, President Barack Obama’s top deputies believed the prospect of massive defense cuts would compel Republicans to agree to a deficit-cutting grand bargain.
Then-OMB Director Jack Lew, now the White House chief of staff, and White House Legislative Affairs Director Rob Nabors pitched the idea to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Woodward writes. Under the deal, which Republicans accepted after several rounds of bargaining, the federal debt ceiling was raised — staving off a potential financial crisis.
Called sequestration, the automatic budget cuts would reduce federal spending by roughly $1 trillion over the next decade, with half the savings taken from national security programs. Despite agreeing that sequestration is bad policy, since all accounts are reduced by an equal amount with no strategy, Republicans and Democrats have been unable to reach a deal to avert the cuts, which take effect Jan. 2.
Instead, the two sides have been locked in a vicious blame game.
“This book makes clear that the president put his own political interests ahead of our national security,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
“House Republicans have passed a plan to protect our troops by replacing the sequester with common-sense spending cuts and reforms,” Smith told POLITICO. “It’s long past time for the president to show some leadership and present a concrete plan to do the same.”
Democrats have also accused Republicans of being responsible for the looming cuts to military spending, which Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said would have a “catastrophic” effect on national security. “It’d be like shooting ourselves in the head,” he has said.
The White House on Thursday declined a request for comment. But administration officials have acknowledged all along that sequestration was meant to be so terrible to prompt lawmakers to compromise and avoid it. Jeffrey Zients, acting director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, told the House Armed Services Committee last month it was intended as a “forcing function.”
And the excerpts from Woodward’s book may give only a portion of the story. At a House Budget Committee hearing in February, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the committee’s top Democrat, said Republicans could have opted for revenue increases instead of Pentagon cuts.
“In designing the sequester, the offer was made to our Republican colleagues to say, instead of having these particular defense cuts as part of sequester, we can get rid of a lot of special interest tax loopholes,” Van Hollen said. “They chose to put the defense cuts on the table.”
In his book, Woodward describes the behind-the-scenes haggling last year that laid the groundwork for sequestration.
Administration officials “had finally decided to propose using language from the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction law as the model for the trigger,” Woodward explains. “It would require a sequester with half the cuts from defense, and the other half from domestic programs. There would be no chance Republicans would want to pull the trigger and allow the sequester to force massive cuts to defense.”
More than a year later, Congress finds itself in almost exactly the same position: gridlocked, unable to work out a sensible solution to a looming crisis.
For his part, the president has placed the blame squarely on Congress.
“Sequestration is basically a bargain that Congress made with itself,” Obama said in an interview last month with an NBC TV affiliate in San Diego. “There is no reason why these additional military cuts should go through, as long as Congress does its job.”