Toomey: keep budget cuts, but give Obama flexibility

WASHINGTON -- As $85 billion in federal budget cuts near, Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey is working on a plan to give President Obama more power to decide how to administer the reductions.

The idea is to replace the blunt, across-the-board reductions that will hit programs effective and ineffective alike with more targeted cutbacks chosen by the White House “so they can make the least disruptive cuts possible,” Toomey said Tuesday.

But Toomey, a Republican fiscal hawk, said the size of the cuts should not change. The reductions, he said, are needed to help trim the federal deficit.

“It’s very important that they be preserved and not be delayed. The willingness to go ahead with them will send a constructive message to our citizens, to the markets,” Toomey said. “I think they’re badly designed, I think too much of them lands on the defense budgets, the nature of the across-the-board cuts preclude a more thoughtful way of prioritizing … but having said that, given the disastrous fiscal situation that we’re in, we’ve got to make these cuts.”

Toomey’s idea is one of several senate Republican alternatives being discussed to try to ease the effects of the cuts called for under the sequester. It could come up for a vote this week, along with a Democratic alternative, but first Toomey will have to win over his GOP colleagues, some of whom are pushing for other fixes. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) said each party will get one alternative bill, and he and President Obama both oppose Toomey’s plan.

Obama, in an afternoon speech in Newport News, Va., rejected the idea that flexibility would undo the damage of the cuts, which would begin to take effect Friday.

When it comes to a cut “which represents over a 10 percent cut in the defense budget in seven months, there’s no smart way to do that,” Obama said. “You don’t want to have to choose between, let’s see, do I close funding for the disabled kid, or the poor kid? Do I close this Navy shipyard or some other one? When you’re doing things in a way that’s not smart you can’t gloss over the pain and the impact it’s going to have on the economy.”

Toomey is crafting his plan along with Sens. Tom Coburn and James Inhofe, both Oklahoma Republicans, but some Republicans worry about ceding too much power to Obama to decide on how the cuts play out.

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, for example, said, “I believe the responsibility I held on the Senate Armed Services Committee and the hundreds of hours of hearings and deliberation and study ... should be adhered to.”

Democrats are wary that if Obama has to take responsibility for all the reductions, Republicans will attempt to absolve themselves of any blame for the fall-out, which Democrats warn will still be significant, given the size of the reductions and that there are just seven months left in the federal fiscal year.

“These guys bash the president nonstop ... then they are going to take the power of the purse and say, ‘We are so unable to do our job we are going to give you complete flexibility to do it’? There’s an irony there,” Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine told the New York Times.

Senate Democrats and Republicans are each expected to put forward an alternative to the sequester that could be voted on Thursday -- but Reid said Republicans will have to settle on one approach. So far the GOP does not appear to have done so. The Senate Democratic plan includes a mix of spending cuts and tax increases, including implementing the so-called “Buffett Rule” requiring that people making more than $5 million pay a minimum effective tax rate.

Obama has called for replacing the cuts with more targeted reductions and new tax revenue that would come from closing tax loopholes. Republicans have opposed any new tax increases and instead want the cuts shifted away from defense programs.

Both parties agreed to the across-the-board cuts in 2011 as a potential penalty if they couldn’t work out a deficit reduction plan. When no plan came together the cuts were set to hit Jan. 1, but they were delayed until March 1.

Now the cuts appear likely to begin taking effect, though it’s not clear what the immediate impact will be. Some programs may feel an immediate pinch, but other reductions may take weeks to make an impact. Threatened furloughs of federal workers, for example, are not expected to happen until some time in April, leaving the two parties time to negotiate solutions, even if they miss Friday’s deadline.