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As cuts loom, the political forecast is mostly hostile

Published: Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 9:28 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — LANDSDOWNE, Va. — After days of private strategy sessions, Republicans and Democrats are poised this week for the same kind of ugly partisan combat over spending and taxes that’s spawned fiscal chaos and sent Congress’ approval ratings plunging.

Democrats will paint a grim picture of how federal services would be sharply curtailed — and millions would be affected — if a planned $85 billion in automatic spending cuts go into effect March 1. Republicans will argue just as passionately that while some might suffer, smart, targeted spending reductions would be a reasonable alternative, and that raising more taxes is hardly the answer.

The parties have devised their political game plans through hours of closed-door sessions, usually at plush resorts far from the Capitol. The goal has been to draw up a battle plan ready for action right after President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday, and their blueprints are a virtual rerun from past years.

Democrats left their retreats fired up. Summing up the House of Representatives Democrats’ three days of meetings, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said, “Everything is about the budget, our values debate, our sense of fairness.”

So don’t be fooled by the sanguine mood that persists for a few hours Tuesday before and during the president’s speech. Members of both parties will cross the aisle and sit with each other, and Obama is expected to talk about unity and humility.

But then it will be back to the brawls, as Washington confronts a succession of doomsday deadlines.

“Listen,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said at a news conference, “the American people believe that the tax question has been settled.”

After Obama’s speech, Congress plans to hang around the rest of the week, then take an extended President’s Day recess until Feb. 25, even though automatic spending cuts, or the sequester, will take effect just four days later, on March 1, unless an alternative is adopted.

The White House on Friday launched an effort to head off the cuts, pressing Congress to find a deal as administration aides warned that the cuts would create severe disruptions “far and wide across the country” — from the slashing of defense programs to teacher layoffs and reductions in food inspections.

The sequester is a “blunt and indiscriminate instrument that poses a serious threat to our national security, domestic priorities and the economy,” said Danny Werfel, a controller within the Office of Management and Budget.

Jason Furman, principal deputy director of the White House National Economic Council, estimated the cuts would cost “hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

Meanwhile, another fiscal showdown looms less than a month later, on March 27, when government funding runs out, followed by April 15, when Congress is supposed to approve budget outlines for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. On May 19, federal authority to borrow money runs out.

A deal to avoid all the fiscal drama is not out of the question. Small signs have emerged recently suggesting that the bitterness of the past four years has ebbed.

A deal to avoid the fiscal cliff that includes more revenue won relatively easy approval last month, and a showdown over the debt limit was avoided without much rancor. Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., considered the leader of the House’s hardcore conservatives, made a conciliatory speech Tuesday, offering ideas for more government involvement in education.

That tone, though, did not seem to filter into the parties’ retreats.

Democrats spent last week talking outside of Washington — senators in Annapolis, representatives in Lansdowne. While Obama spoke to both groups, warning that “we don’t have a monopoly on wisdom,” he insisted that revenue — raising taxes and closing tax loopholes — had to be part of any agreement to avoid the March 1 cuts.

“If that’s an argument that they (Republicans) want to have before the court of public opinion, that is an argument I’m more than willing to engage in,” he said.

Republicans were just as adamant. Senators met at the Library of Congress last week, and House members retreated to Williamsburg, Va., last month. While Republicans routinely lamented the sequester, they vowed to reject any alternative that included new revenue.

The Republican strategy over the next few weeks is taking two forms. One, led by a group worried about the impact of Pentagon cuts, is to offer spending-cut-only alternatives to the sequester. The other is to just let it happen.

Lawmakers active in military affairs have a plan that would raise $85 billion by reducing the federal workforce and freezing congressional pay. The number of federal employees would shrink by 10 percent through attrition.

Committees will hear testimony from top military officials about the impact of sequestration.

“I think what they will tell us at that hearing is we are really in dire straits,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif.

Republicans, though, are also prepared to accept the automatic cuts. If no reasonable alternative can be found, said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., “that’s actually the preferred option.”

Republicans have a solid House majority, but Democrats control the Senate and are drawing up a sequester alternative that’s expected to include revenues. A vote could occur in late February.

Democrats are feeling feisty and resolute.

“The election results really energized us,” said Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.

Obama drew applause at his Thursday lunchtime speech to House Democrats, telling them that it was “important for us to make sure we’ve got a strong national defense and that we reduce our spending in a smart way.”

But he added: “We sure as heck should be willing to ask those of us who are luckiest in this society to close a few loopholes and deductions that the average American doesn’t get. And if that’s the choice that we’ve got, I promise you we can win that debate because we’re on the right side of this argument. And I expect that you guys will be with me on that.”

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(Lesley Clark of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.)

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