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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The Sequester Blame Game

President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner emerged from their White House meeting on sequestration blaming each other for the automatic spending cuts and misrepresenting the other side’s position:

  • Obama’s remarks left the false impression that Boehner has reneged on a GOP plan to raise $800 billion by limiting tax breaks for the wealthy. Boehner offered that plan in December as an alternative to raising income tax rates. But that plan was dropped when Obama and Republicans agreed to raise rates, effective Jan. 1.
  • Boehner said the Senate hasn’t done “anything” to replace the across-the-board cuts with a more reasonable plan, while the House has passed two bills. But both House bills passed in a prior session. The Senate is the only body that attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to pass legislation this year. The fact is: Neither chamber has passed a bill this congressional session to avoid the cuts.

Obama met with congressional leaders at the White House on the day that the automatic spending cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act were scheduled to take effect. The law requires across-the-board spending cuts this fiscal year of $85 billion and nearly $1 trillion over 10 years, unless the White House and Congress can come up with a new plan.

Obama has proposed a $1.8 trillion deficit reduction plan that includes about $700 million in new revenues, largely by capping deductions and eliminating some tax breaks for the wealthy. At a White House press conference, Obama blamed Republicans for failing to support new tax revenues — saying it is “interesting” that Boehner “just a couple months ago” recommended capping or eliminating tax breaks for the wealthy to raise more revenue. But that misrepresents Boehner’s position.

Obama, March 1: And what’s interesting is Speaker Boehner, just a couple months ago, identified these tax loopholes and tax breaks and said we should close them and raise revenue. So it’s not as if it’s not possible to do. They themselves have suggested that it’s possible to do.

Obama said something similar in a speech a few days earlier in Virginia.

Obama, Feb. 26: All we’re asking is to consider closing tax loopholes and deductions that the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, said he was willing to do just a few months ago. He said there were a bunch of loopholes and deductions you could close. He said you could raise $800 billion, a trillion dollars by closing loopholes.

It’s true that in December Boehner offered unspecified changes in the tax code that would raise $800 billion in new revenues over 10 years — but only on the condition that Obama drop his demand to raise the top two marginal income tax rates. Boehner made his $800 billion offer to resolve the so-called fiscal cliff crisis, but as it turned out, both parties agreed to about $620 billion in new revenue by raising the top income tax rate.

Appearing Dec. 2 on “Fox News Sunday,” Boehner said: “We put $800 billion worth of revenue, which is what he’s asking for, out of eliminating the top two tax rates. …We have laid it all out for them, a dozen different ways you can raise the revenue from the richest Americans, as the president would describe them, without raising tax rates.”

The agreement reached in late December raised tax rates on earnings above $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for couples, among other things. Obama signed the law Jan. 2, and the new rates retroactively took effect Jan. 1.

A day after Obama signed the bill, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned the president in an opinion piece that Republicans would accept no more tax increases.

McConnell, Jan. 3: Predictably, the President is already claiming that his tax hike on the “rich” isn’t enough. I have news for him: the moment that he and virtually every elected Democrat in Washington signed off on the terms of the current arrangement, it was the last word on taxes. That debate is over. Now the conversation turns to cutting spending on the government programs that are the real source of the nation’s fiscal imbalance.

Nothing has changed since then, Obama’s remarks notwithstanding.

Boehner Blames the Senate

Boehner also twisted the facts in his remarks to reporters, when he said: “The House shouldn’t have to pass a third bill before the Senate does anything.”

It’s true that the Senate has not passed any legislation to avoid the sequester cuts, but Boehner is wrong to say that the Senate hasn’t done “anything.” The Senate has voted on two pieces of legislation to avoid the sequester — but neither bill garnered the 60 votes it needed to move forward.

On Feb. 28, the Senate voted down both a Democratic bill, which called for alternative spending cuts and tax increases on the wealthy to replace the sequester, and a Republican bill, which required President Obama to propose alternative cuts without also raising taxes.

Both Senate votes were on motions to invoke cloture, a procedure that would bring an end to debate and allow a vote on the legislation. Sixty votes are needed to invoke cloture, and both of these measures fell short of that. The votes were 51-49 and 38-62.

The House, meanwhile, hasn’t passed a bill to avoid the sequester since December, and even then, it was by a thin margin, 215-209. Twenty-one Republicans joined all Democrats in opposing the bill. Unlike the Senate, the House only needed a simple majority to pass the legislation, which would have stopped cuts to defense and instead cut funding for social programs, such as food stamps. The measure wasn’t seen as an effort to compromise by Democrats, to say the least. Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland called it “a ridiculous political stunt” that was “wasting valuable time.”

The House passed a similar bill along party lines in May 2012. Those bills died when the 112th Congress ended on Jan. 3, 2013.

The Senate wasn’t expected to sign on to either of the House bills, just as it wasn’t expected to approve the legislation it took up Feb. 28.

— Eugene Kiely and Lori Robertson