Spending cut debate casts pall over Obama's second-term agenda

WASHINGTON Sat Mar 2, 2013 5:13pm EST

1 of 10. U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the sequester after a meeting with congressional leaders at the White House in Washington March 1, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Just hours after across-the-board spending cuts officially took effect, President Barack Obama pressed Congress on Saturday to work with him on a compromise to halt a fiscal crisis that threatens the economy and his broader domestic policy agenda.

The failure by Obama and Republicans to agree to halt the $85 billion 'sequester' cuts virtually guaranteed that fiscal issues would remain center stage in Washington for weeks, crowding out Obama's proposals to reform immigration, tighten gun laws and raise the minimum wage.

The economic effects of the spending cuts may take time to kick in, but political blowback has already begun and is hitting Obama as well as congressional Republicans.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll on Friday showed neither Republicans on one side nor Obama and his fellow Democrats escaping blame.

Obama's approval rating dropped to 47 percent in a Gallup poll on Friday, down from 51 percent in the previous three-day period measured.

While most polls show voters blame Republicans primarily for the fiscal mess, Obama could see himself associated with the worst effects of sequestration like the looming furloughs of hundreds of thousands of federal workers.

He signed an order on Friday night that started putting the cuts into effect.

In his weekly radio address, Obama appealed for Republicans to work with Democrats on a deal, saying Americans were weary of seeing Washington "careen from one manufactured crisis to another."

But he offered no new ideas to resolve the recurring fiscal fights, and there was no immediate sign of any negotiations.

"There's a caucus of common sense (in Congress)," Obama said in his address. "And I'm going to keep reaching out to them to fix this for good."

At the heart of Washington's persistent fiscal showdowns is disagreement over how to slash the budget deficit and the $16 trillion national debt, bloated over the years by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and government stimulus for the ailing economy.

The Democratic president wants to close the fiscal gap with spending cuts and tax hikes - what he calls a "balanced approach." But Republicans do not want to concede again on taxes after doing so in negotiations over the "fiscal cliff" at the New Year.

As Obama and his aides have done for weeks, the president in offered a litany of hardships he said would flow from the forced spending cuts.

"Beginning this week, businesses that work with the military will have to lay folks off. Communities near military bases will take a serious blow. Hundreds of thousands of Americans who serve their country - Border Patrol agents, FBI agents, civilians who work for the Defense Department - will see their wages cut and their hours reduced," he said.

'IT'S CALLED LEADERSHIP'

Critics said Obama should have held meaningful talks with congressional leaders long before Friday's last-minute meeting at the White House, which failed to prevent the automatic cuts written into law during a previous budget crisis in 2011.

"The president should call the senior representatives of the parties together to Camp David - or any place with a table, chairs, and no TV cameras - for serious negotiations on replacing the sequester with firm, enforceable beginnings of a comprehensive long-term debt stabilization agreement," said former Republican Senator Pete Domenici and fiscal expert Alice Rivlin.

The budget veterans, who lead the Bipartisan Policy Center's Debt Reduction Task Force, called on Obama and congressional Republican leaders to "be willing to tell those on the polar extremes of their parties that a central majority consensus will govern. It's called leadership."

After months of silence on political issues, Obama's Republican opponent in last November's election resurfaced to take a swipe at the Democrat's handling of the sequestration mess.

"No one can think that that's been a success for the president," Mitt Romney said in an interview to air on "Fox News Sunday."

The former Massachusetts governor accused Obama of "flying around the country and berating Republicans and blaming and pointing," instead of striking a budget deal.

Twenty-eight percent of Americans blame Republicans for the lack of a deal to halt sequestration, while 22 percent hold either Obama or the Democrats in Congress responsible, according to the Reuters/Ipsos poll. Thirty-seven percent blame them all.

The budget standstill has overshadowed Obama's aggressive set of policy goals ranging from boosting pre-school education to fighting climate change and reforming America's immigration system.

Obama vowed in a news conference on Friday that the fiscal troubles would not prevent him from advocating for those proposals.

"I think there are other areas where we can make progress even with the sequester unresolved. I will continue to push for those initiatives," he said.

(Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)

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A couple walks along the rough surf during sunset at Oahu's North Shore, December 26, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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