Washington – Conceding that talks on a grand budget deal are near failure, Congressional leaders on Sunday pointed fingers at each other as they tried to deflect blame for their inability to figure out a way to lower the federal deficit without having to rely on automated cuts.
The testy exchanges — which dominated the Sunday talk shows — made clear that leaders in both parties now see the so-called sequester — a term meaning an automatic spending cut — as the most likely solution to reduce the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years, instead of a negotiated package of spending reductions and tax increases, something they have been unable to achieve over the last 10 weeks.
Democrats blamed the Republicans for their unwillingness to walk away from a no-new-taxes pact they signed at the request of a conservative, antitax group, arguing that the American public realizes that no grand deal could be reached without a combination of spending cuts and new tax revenues.
“As long as we have some Republican lawmakers who feel more enthralled with a pledge they took to a Republican lobbyist than they do to a pledge to the country to solve the problems, this is going to be hard to do,” Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, the co-chairwoman of the 12-member special Congressional committee on deficit reduction, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
But Representative Jeb Hensarling, Republican of Texas, the other co-chairman, said it was inflexibility on the part of the Democrats that had caused the impasse, particularly when it came to agreeing to major money-saving changes in social programs likeMedicare and Social Security.
“Unfortunately, what we haven’t seen in these talks from the other side is any Democrats willing to put a proposal on the table that actually solves the problems,” Mr. Hensarling said on “Fox News Sunday.”
A deal effectively needs to be settled on by Monday, if the deficit committee is going to approve it by Wednesday, the legal deadline for an agreement before the automated cuts are supposed to be imposed, although they would not start until January 2013. On Sunday, there was even disagreement about what the primary stumbling block had been to reaching an accord.
The Democrats said that the refusal of the Republicans on the bipartisan committee to agree to allow tax cuts first passed during the Bush administration to expire — which would be one way to raise new revenue, to match spending cuts the Democrats have agreed to accept — was to blame.
“If they will give up their insistence on the Bush tax cuts, we can get this done,” Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
But Republicans countered that with the economy already weak, Congress would do more harm if it agreed to a deal that would significantly increase federal revenues, implying that the package that the Democrats had pushed called for at least $1 trillion in new taxes.
“You can’t grow if you raise taxes in the middle of a recession,” Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, a committee member and the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, said, also on “Meet the Press.”
Both sides agreed that a deal remained a possibility, although it was considered unlikely.
“Nobody wants to give up hope,” Mr. Hensarling said, before adding, “reality, to some extent, is starting to overtake hope.”
The focus increasingly is turning to how to perhaps change the mix of automated budget cuts before they take effect in January 2013, if no budget deal is reached this week.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that domestic programs would be cut by 7.8 percent, Medicare spending would fall by about 2 percent, while the biggest cut would be to defense programs, which would be reduced by about 10 percent.
Mr. Hensarling and Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, both said they hoped the mix of cuts could be changed to lessen the effect on the Defense Department. “Our own defense secretary, Leon Panetta, has said that they would hollow out our military,” Mr. Toomey said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “So I think it’s very important that we change the configuration, but that we not abandon the spending cuts, because we need them.”
Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, who is not on the deficit committee but is a spokesman of sorts for the Tea Party groups that have pushed the government to curtail the deficit — said he was not too worried about the impact the spending reductions would have on the Pentagon, as its overall budget would still increase, just not as much as expected.
Increasing taxes is not the answer, as most wealthy people already pay more than their fair share, he said.
“The vast majority of millionaires and billionaires are paying all of the taxes,” he said on CNN. “That’s who pays the income tax.”