WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama brushed off a Republican plan yesterday to give him flexibility to allocate $85 billion in looming spending cuts, wanting no part of a deal that would force him to choose between the bad and the terrible.
Three days out and no closer to any agreement, both parties sought to saddle the other with the blame for the pain of the across-the-board cuts set to kick in Friday. Obama accused Republicans of refusing to compromise, while the top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, chided Obama's effort to "fan the flames of catastrophe."
McConnell and other top Republicans were lining up behind a plan that wouldn't replace the cuts but would give Obama's agency heads greater discretion in distributing them. The idea is that money could be transferred from lower-priority accounts to others that fund air traffic control or meat inspection.
But Obama, appearing at a Virginia shipbuilding site that he said would sit idle should the cuts go through, rejected the idea, saying there's no smart way to cut so much from the budget over just seven months -- the amount of time left in the fiscal year.
"You don't want to have to choose between, 'Let's see, do I close funding for the disabled kid, or the poor kid? Do I close this Navy shipyard or some other one?' " Obama said. "You can't gloss over the pain and the impact it's going to have on the economy."
Giving the administration more authority could take pressure off Congress to address the sequester. But the White House is also keenly aware that it would give Republicans an opening to blame Obama, instead of themselves, for every unpopular cut he makes.
The White House has warned the $85 billion in cuts could affect everything from commercial flights to classrooms. The cuts would slash domestic and defense spending, leading to forced unpaid days off for hundreds of thousands of workers.
The impact won't be immediate. Federal workers would be notified next week that they will have to take up to a day off every week without pay, but the furloughs won't start for a month due to notification requirements. That will give negotiators some breathing room to work on a deal.
The impact of the cuts would be felt quicker for about 2 million long-term unemployed people could see checks now averaging $300 a week reduced by about $30. There could also be reductions in federal payments that subsidize clean energy, school construction, and state and local public works projects.