Obama Again Calls For Balanced Plan For Cuts

President Obama spoke Tuesday about the impacts of deep spending cuts scheduled to take effect March 1. With a group of first responders in uniform standing behind him in the White House, he said if Congress doesn't stop the cuts, responders won't be able to help communities respond to disasters.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Earlier this hour, President Obama spoke in the White House about the impacts of deep spending cuts that are scheduled to take effect a week from Friday. A group of first responders in uniforms stood behind him. The president said if Congress does not stop these cuts, these men and women in uniform will not be available to help communities respond to, and recover from disasters.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: These cuts are not smart, they are not fair, they will hurt our economy, they will add hundreds of thousands of Americans to the unemployment rolls. This is not an abstraction. People will lose their jobs.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Ari Shapiro is with us here in the studio. Ari, welcome.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So, what does the president want the Congress to do?

SHAPIRO: You know, every time one of these financial crises has come up in the last couple of years, we've heard the president use the exact same phase - a balanced approach - and that was the phrase he used again today. He wants Congress to find cuts that will eliminate wasteful and redundant programs, overhaul the tax code, close loopholes to get more money from corporations and the wealthy, thereby coming away with the same savings as the sequester but doing it in what he called a more balanced way.

He acknowledged that this is a heavy lift for a week from Friday, so, as he has before, he called on Congress to pass a short-term fix, giving them time to come up with a more long-term solution.

Republicans say they have swallowed all the tax increases they can handle. They want to replace the sequester cuts with other cuts. Now, Obama said today, that will fall overwhelmingly on the shoulders of seniors, students, middle-class workers and so on. He was very explicit this morning that if Republicans send him such a plan, he says he will not sign it.

WERTHEIMER: Now, some of the Republicans have said that the sequester would not be such a bad deal. Did the president (unintelligible) that?

SHAPIRO: Yeah, he did. He called this a meat cleaver approach. And he described a specific impact the sequester would have on a wide range of groups. He talked about teachers, kids on Head Start, air traffic controllers. As you mentioned, first responders. He acknowledged the desire to cut the budget. But he said, this approach, the sequester, will do way more harm than good.

OBAMA: And this is not an abstraction. There are people whose livelihoods are at stake, there are communities that are going to be impacted in a negative way. And I know that sometimes all this squabbling in Washington seems very abstract. And in the abstract, people like the idea, you know, there must be some spending we can cut. There must be some waste out there. There absolutely is. But this isn't the right way to do it.

WERTHEIMER: So, what's the Republican response?

SHAPIRO: Well, the Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, put out a statement calling this a campaign event. He said if these cuts go into effect, it's going to be the president's fault. He said if the sequester happens, quote, "that would be a terrible and entirely unnecessary choice by a president who claims to want bipartisan reform," he said.

Generally, Republicans point out that they have offered an alternative to the sequester, but it's an alternative that the president finds unacceptable. So, as we have seen so often before, the two sides seem to be at a standoff here.

WERTHEIMER: But still we have the deadline, and it's coming. So what happens between now and then?

SHAPIRO: Friday. There are still bipartisan efforts in Congress to come up with some sort of a short-term deal that everybody can agree on that would give them time to hammer out a more long-term deal. Right now, the overarching sentiment in Washington is that it's unlikely they're going to work this out in time; that the sequester will, in fact, take effect. But then - and here's the glimmer of hope - that was the consensus in Washington a couple months ago, as we were approaching the fiscal cliff. People seemed to believe the country was just going to go over the cliff. Somehow Congress pulled out a deal in time. So, who knows? It's possible that will happen again in the next week and a half.

WERTHEIMER: But, if. If the deadline passes without a deal, when will we notice that something has happened?

SHAPIRO: The answer is, it's going to vary widely from one agency to another. Some are going to make immediate cuts that we might perceive very quickly - the White House is emphasizing those - over other agencies that may be operating on a budget a year in advance, or may have their budget organized differently so that the cuts would be not as visible as immediately.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's White House correspondent, Ari Shapiro. Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

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