Week In Politics: Automatic Budget Cuts Deadline Nears

Melissa Block talks to regular political commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times. They discuss the automatic budget cuts scheduled for March 1.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. One week from today, $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts are set to kick in, the sequester that Congress and the White House haven't been able to head off with a deal. The Obama administration has warned of dire effects, from first responders losing their jobs to the closure of visitor centers and campgrounds at national parks.

Well, today, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman, appeared in the White House briefing room to outline how the cuts would affect his department. LaHood said that $600 million would have to be cut from the Federal Aviation Administration this year, causing furloughs for air traffic controllers.

SECRETARY RAY LAHOOD: Flights to major cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco and others could experience delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours. Delays in these major airports will ripple across the country.

BLOCK: And so, with the sequester looming, we turn to our regular Friday political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome back.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be here.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be with you.

BLOCK: And E.J., let's start with you. There is a lot of finger-pointing right now about who is responsible for these impending cuts, who will be blamed if and when they kick in, and I guess the assumption now is when, not if. You call this an utterly artificial crisis. What effects do you see?

DIONNE: I think it's an utterly artificial crisis. It's really the ghost of the Tea Party haunting Washington because the whole sequester comes out of an effort to end the other utterly unnecessary crisis back in 2011 over the debt ceiling. And so they came up with a package they thought would be so bad that no one would buy it and they would come to a reasonable deal.

President Obama has come up with, I think, a very reasonable deal. Indeed, I think my friend David should be embracing the president because he's doing what David has spent two years telling us we should do: a balance of tax - money raised through tax reform and some reasonable cuts, including by the way, cuts in Medicare spending.

I think the Republicans have an interest in this crisis going on as long as possible. They kind of like to run out the clock because the more time we spend on phony budget crises, the less time we spend on, oh, getting people back to work, investing in the future, easing inequality, promoting mobility.

So they just want to put more and more time between us and the last election, which Obama won. And right now, it's looking like the public will blame the Republicans more than Obama, but Obama is stuck in a situation where he is losing time to do some of the things he'd like to do.

BLOCK: Well David, E.J. is saying you should embrace what the president is proposing here. What do you see going on?

BROOKS: Well, I'd like to reject people more than embrace people. I'm just that kind of guy.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: You're just a curmudgeon.

BROOKS: So let me reject what the Republicans are doing. I have more ambivalent feelings about what the White House is doing. But the Republicans are doing the worst of all possible worlds. This was designed to be stupid; it magnificently achieves that.

The Democrats - or the Republicans are in a position politically where they have to show the country they're mindless anti-government fanatics, they can separate good government policies from bad government policies. This is a piece of mindless anti-government fanaticism, which doesn't separate the good from the bad. It just cuts.

In fact, it cuts in the worst of all possible ways. It doesn't cut the things that are actually leading the long-term debt problem, like Medicare and Social Security. It cuts the things people actually like, like National Institutes of Health and stuff like that. So, to me, it's a political disaster in the making for Republicans.

Their problem is they don't want to sign on to any more tax increases, given they've already given a lot on that ground. So they're sort of stuck. But I wish they'd wiggle out of it.

BLOCK: But what about that argument that we've heard from Speaker Boehner and a number of other Republicans: You got your tax increase last month. They say the revenue debate is over.

BROOKS: Yeah, I think that's legitimate.

BLOCK: You do?

BROOKS: You know, I do think that they gave a lot on tax increases and got zippo in response. And so I do think the next time around, we should do something that's much more on the spending side. The president has done a little spending, what they call chain CPI in Social Security, to me not enough, and they're still relying too much on tax increases by closing loopholes, which would undermine tax reform in the long run.

So I do think the Republicans have a point on that. But they're just in a pretty weak position right now.

BLOCK: E.J.?

DIONNE: I don't think they have a point at all. I mean, that was 642 billion in revenues. We've already done well over 2 trillion in cuts. Obama agreed to a lot of cuts in 2011, and he's not asking nearly as much in tax increases as either Simpson-Bowles did or he once did. He'd settle for 400 or $500 billion in additional taxes.

You'd still have an enormous ratio in favor of cuts over tax increases if you agreed to Obama's deal. And so, I think there's something very disingenuous to say, well, we'll pass this one - taxes one time only. Boehner himself said he'd be for more tax increases than he's voted for.

BLOCK: I want to move on to another topic. This week, we saw Florida's Republican Governor Rick Scott reversing himself. He's joining a number of other Republican governors and decided that they will expand their state's Medicaid program under the health care law. Let's take a listen.

GOVERNOR RICK SCOTT: But regardless what I believe or anyone else, a Supreme Court decision and the election last November made the president's health care mandates the law of the land.

BLOCK: And it's interesting, David, because Rick Scott in 2010 campaigned ardently against Obamacare, he called it a job-killer. Now he calls this Medicaid expansion common sense. Do you think he and other Republicans will pay the price from their base?

BROOKS: No.

BLOCK: No?

BROOKS: No, and I say that because basically the federal government is giving Florida the equivalent of $1.9 billion to expand Medicare and Medicaid - excuse me, just Medicaid. And so that's a lot of money for their constituents. You pay me $1.9 billion, I'm going to sound like E.J. if you want me to.

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: So it's a good offer, and if you're a governor...

DIONNE: I'm going to try to come up with the money.

BROOKS: OK.

BLOCK: We're going to see if we can work that into the ALL THINGS CONSIDERED budget.

BROOKS: Through NPR fundraising. So, you know, basically he's in political trouble, and he's going to get some money to put a lot more people - get a lot more people health insurance. And if anybody, right or left, objects to getting free health care from the government and has turned that into a voting issue, I've never met that person. Even conservatives seem to like getting these benefits.

BLOCK: E.J.?

DIONNE: I think that it's - you've got seven Republican governors now, including governors of three big states - Scott in Florida, Snyder in Michigan, Kasich in Ohio - who are all taking this money. They're taking the money because it was set up in a way to make it exceedingly attractive.

They're also taking the money because hospitals all over their state, whether they're run by Republicans or Democrats, know that they're going to lose some money in uncompensated care. The deal was it would be made up for by this Medicaid coverage so poor people could get insurance.

But it does tell us again this is not 2010 anymore and that Rick Scott, who is in some political trouble, doesn't expect 2014 to be like 2010.

BLOCK: And very briefly, E.J., do you see these Republicans facing a backlash from people who are very ardently opposed to Obamacare?

DIONNE: Well, given the nature of the Republican primary electorate, you could imagine somebody running in a primary against him on this. But in the end, I think they would - I don't know about Scott, but I think Kasich would hang on in a primary in such a case. And I don't think the backlash against Obama's health law is as great as it was in - four years ago.

BLOCK: OK, thanks to you both, have a great weekend.

DIONNE: Great to be with you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's E.J. Dionne of the Washington and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of the New York Times.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: This is NPR News.

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