By Tom Cohen — WASHINGTON (CNN) — Three days before forced spending cuts portrayed by most as an economic body blow, President Barack Obama and Republican rivals relied on spin versus substance Tuesday in trying to prod a deeply divided Congress into action to avert the harshest impacts.
Obama headed to military country in Virginia, where local residents will bear the brunt of mandatory cuts to defense spending, for a campaign-style event intended to highlight the negative situation.
Obama said the impact of cuts “won’t be felt overnight, but it will be real,” telling Newport News shipyard workers that jobs will be lost and the nation’s security will be weakened unless Congress agrees on a way to avert them.
He also called the cuts “a self-inflicted wound that doesn’t have to happen,” calling on legislators to come up with an agreement. He added that “there’s a sensible way of doing things and there’s a dumb way of doing things.”
Republicans criticized Obama for what some called scare tactics, but also said the spending cuts would be bad policy and should be changed. Only rigid fiscal conservatives backed the concept of mandatory deep spending cuts as a painful first step of necessary deficit reduction.
Meanwhile, government officials and military leaders continued warning of serious consequences if Congress fails to agree on an alternative to the mandatory $85 billion in cuts for the rest of fiscal year 2013, which ends on September 30.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said Tuesday the automatic cuts will slow the already sluggish U.S. economy, harming the still-moderate recovery from recession.
However, conflicting messages in the increasingly heated debate raised confusion about exactly what will happen if the spending cuts go into effect as scheduled on Friday.
At a House subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, the heads of the nation’s military services warned of serious problems if the full effect of cuts are allowed to happen.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said the pending cuts would hollow out the military and were “not in the best interest of our national security.”
In particular, he said reduced spending for this year would reduce training, diminish the special operations command and result in layoffs and furloughs of civilian staff that will delay medical care for soldiers and their families.
Rep. Harold Rogers of Kentucky, the GOP chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told the panel that the spending cuts known in Washington jargon as sequestration were “both terrible politics and terrible policy.”
In particular, he warned the cuts to defense spending would impair the nation’s overall military readiness.
That contrasted with conservative Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who said Monday that the cuts won’t be as harmful as the Obama administration warns.
The veteran senator conceded that he initially agreed with dire predictions from the administration and top Republicans of major harm to the nation’s military. After looking into the situation, Cornyn said he now argues that the Pentagon will still see its budget go up despite the forced cuts.
Senate Republicans are considering a proposal this week that could alleviate some impacts of the cuts by giving the president flexibility to decide where they would occur.
The proposal is the GOP counter to a Democratic plan to replace the sequester cuts with more tax revenue collected from millionaires, as well as eliminating agriculture subsidies and reducing defense spending after the end of combat operations in Afghanistan next year.
House Speaker John Boehner expressed continuing frustration over what he called a lack of leadership by Obama and Senate Democrats.
The House has twice passed bills that would replace the mandatory cuts of sequestration with other reductions that avoid harming the military, a concept rejected by Democrats as shifting the impact of deficit reduction to the middle class and needy Americans.
“We should not have to move a third bill before the Senate gets off their ass and begins to do something,” Boehner told reporters on Tuesday.
In response, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said bills passed last year by the previous Congress no longer matter, and that the Constitution requires legislation involving appropriations and revenue to originate in the House.
“There’s not much that is being accomplished by what they are doing,” Pelosi said of House GOP leaders, calling their refusal to act on the matter “irresponsible” and “mindless.”
The forced cuts were written into law in 2011 to be intentionally indiscriminate so that legislators would compromise on an alternative instead of allowing them to take effect.
However, election year politics in 2012 prevented an agreement, and the continuing partisan divide over how to reduce or at least control chronic federal deficits and debt caused the widely opposed spending cuts to become imminent.
The law does not allow the Pentagon or government agencies to shift money to protect some programs or operations from the spending cuts.
While Republicans are divided over how much flexibility Obama should get to avoid the worst impacts of the cuts, they appear unified in opposing any increase in tax revenue to partially offset them.
A January agreement that raised tax rates on top income earners while putting off the forced cuts for two months provided all tax revenue Republicans were willing to consider, party leaders say.
“We can either secure these reductions more intelligently or we can do it the president’s way with across the board cuts,” Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday. “But one thing Americans simply will not accept is another tax increase to replace spending reductions we already agreed to.”
His Democratic counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, blamed Republican intransigence for the impact.
“My Republican colleagues are standing in the way of a solution,” he said. “They only want cuts and more cuts. They are willing to sacrifice three quarters of a million American jobs rather than ask multi-millionaires to pay a penny more.”
The full impact of the cuts won’t be felt for at least a month, until after a March 27 deadline for Congress to agree on extending funding for the government for the rest of the fiscal year.
An agreement on the overall government funding could soften or eliminate the cuts and much of the hyperbole this week involved posturing for the broader debate of coming weeks.
CNN’s Dana Bash, Alan Silverleib, Ted Barrett, Kevin Liptak and Ashleigh Killough contributed to this report.
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