Obama applies fresh pressure on Republicans to avoid cuts

WASHINGTON Tue Feb 19, 2013 10:59pm IST

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about strengthening the economy for the middle class and measures to combat gun violence during a visit to Hyde Park Academy in Chicago, Illinois February 15, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about strengthening the economy for the middle class and measures to combat gun violence during a visit to Hyde Park Academy in Chicago, Illinois February 15, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama renewed his pressure on congressional Republicans to head off budget cuts that are due to begin on March 1, staging a White House appearance with emergency workers to illustrate jobs he said were at risk.

Obama is trying to get concessions from Congress to stall the cuts by ending tax breaks enjoyed mainly by wealthy Americans.

"My door is open. I put tough cuts and reforms on the table. I am willing to work with anyone to get this job done," Obama said at the event, flanked by 17 uniformed firefighters and law enforcement officers.

With both houses of Congress off this week, there seemed to be little movement toward a compromise on halting the cuts.

Unless there is a deal, about $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts begin on March 1 and continue through September 30 as part of a decade-long $1.2 trillion budget savings plan.

"This is not an abstraction. There are people whose livelihoods are at stake," Obama said, noting the cuts, known as "sequestration," could hurt the economy.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that, if fully implemented, these cuts would hold back U.S. growth and prevent the creation of about 750,000 jobs this year.

Half the cuts would be shouldered by the Pentagon and the other half scattered among many other government agencies.

But even if the cuts happen, Congress is expected to blunt their effect by negotiating a replacement measure in March at the same time as lawmakers work on a deal to fund government agencies that run out of money on March 27.

OPEN DOOR?

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell criticized Obama for holding a "campaign-style" event rather than focusing on cutting government waste or trimming spending on green energy programs.

"President says his door is open, but he's spent more time in 2013 with Tiger Woods than with all congressional Republicans," said Doug Heye, a spokesman for House Republican Leader Eric Cantor, on Twitter. He was referring to Obama's golf weekend in Florida, during which he played with Woods.

Republican Speaker John Boehner said the House has twice passed a plan to replace the sequester with "common sense cuts" and said the president needs to show he was willing to make cuts to keep emergency workers and others on the job.

"Just last month, the president got his higher taxes on the wealthy, and he's already back for more," Boehner said in a statement.

Obama has been adamant that any budget agreement to replace the cuts reflect a balanced approach and include both budget cuts and tax increases.

To give Congress time to act on a long-term solution, Obama urged congressional Republicans to accept a smaller $110 billion package that Democrats proposed last week.

But Republicans believe they have raised taxes enough after reluctantly agreeing to increase them on the wealthy as part of a deal that avoided the "fiscal cliff" of higher taxes and spending cuts that would have kicked in at the end of 2012.

Republicans want deeper spending cuts to reduce the United States' $1 trillion annual deficits and $16 trillion national debt.

At the same time, a bipartisan fiscal commission appointed by Obama added to the Washington debate over spending by proposing $2.4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years. The commission, led by Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, and Alan Simpson, a Republican, would cut spending, overhaul the tax system and reform the healthcare system.

(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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