Obama: ‘These cuts do not have to happen’

Budget Sequester

(CNN) – In his latest push to pressure Congress before a series of massive, across-the-board forced spending cuts kick in on Friday, President Barack Obama is bringing state governors into the conversation.

The president spoke Monday morning before the National Governors Association at the White House, where he urged the state executives to weigh in on the matter.

“While you are in town, I hope that you speak with your congressional delegation and remind them in no uncertain terms exactly what is at stake and exactly who is at risk,” Obama told the room full of governors gathered in Washington for their winter meeting.

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He continued: “Because here’s the thing. These cuts do not have to happen. Congress can turn them off any time with just a little bit of compromise.”

At issue is a disagreement over how to reduce the deficit. While Democrats, including the president, call for a mix of spending cuts and more revenue through tax reform, Republicans say taxes are off the table. The real issue, they say, is over-spending, even in entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.

“I know that sometimes folks in Congress think that compromise is a bad word. And they figure they’ll pay a higher price at the polls for working with the other side than they will for standing pat or engaging in obstructionism,” Obama said. “But as governors, some of you with legislatures controlled by the other party, you know that compromise is essential to getting things done.”

The forced spending cuts, known in Washington as the sequester, originated from a proposal first floated by the White House in mid-2011 as Congress faced an approaching deadline to raise the debt ceiling. Republicans and Democrats ultimately agreed to raise the debt limit and come up with a deficit-reduction agreement to offset the higher debt level. But, if they didn’t act, they would face these automatic budget cuts, instead.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Friday said the sequester was designed to motivate lawmakers to come up with a better plan.

“It was simply a way of crafting policy that was so onerous, that would cause cuts that nobody liked–Republicans or Democrats-and … it would compel Congress to compromise, come together on further deficit-reduction in a balanced way,” Carney said on CNN’s “The Situation Room.”

The cuts were supposed to trigger at the beginning of the year, but Congress passed a fiscal cliff bill that delayed the spending reductions by two months, to March 1.

Congress returns to work Monday after a weeklong break, and while Senate Democrats plan to vote on a measure that would replace the cuts for one year, no feasible compromise plan appears in the works that would gain congressional approval before Friday.

If left untouched, the spending cuts will slash $1.2 trillion from the federal budget over the next decade, with $85 billion being cut over the next seven months. The White House on Sunday night issued an extensive, state-by-state analysis and dire warnings should the cuts go through.

The report detailed that food safety inspections, early education classrooms and mental health treatment are all at risk in the looming cuts. A reduction in defense spending, meanwhile, will stall maintenance on Navy ships.

All told, non-defense programs would be forced to reduce their spending by 9%, the White House said, while defense programs would have to cut 13%.

Obama on Monday also pointed to cuts in the pre-kindergarten program, “Head Start,” which could force tens of thousands of parents to find childcare elsewhere. Hundreds of thousands, he added, will lose access to primary care and preventative care like flu vaccinations and cancer screenings.

“These impacts will not all be felt on Day One, but rest assured, the uncertainty is already having an effect,” he said. “Companies are preparing layoff notices. Families are preparing to cut back on expenses. And the longer these cuts are in place, the bigger the impact will become.”

Critics argue the White House is exaggerating the potential impact of the budget slashing, with some saying it’s time for the country to reduce its spending–even if those cuts were not designed in the most desirable way.

“Enough’s enough,” GOP Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told reporters after the president’s remarks. “The president needs to stop campaigning, stop trying to scare the American people, stop trying to scare states.”

Jindal, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, said the Obama administration has an “insatiable appetite for new revenue” and repeatedly argued it was time for the president to “show leadership.”

If the cuts were “truly devastating,” he said, then the administration should cut future programs, such as Obamacare measures, rather than chisel away at existing programs.

In the press conference, the governors also offered a bipartisan call for bipartisanship. Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy of Connecticut said lawmakers “need to get out of that box that sits under the dome and understand that this has real implications in peoples’ lives.”

“They should stop playing around with it and get the job done,” he said. “And by the way they should compromise.”

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican and vice-chair of the NGA, said if state governments are able to balance their budgets, then so should the federal government. She called on lawmakers to avert the spending cuts, or at least buy time and find a way to make smarter reductions, rather than across-the-board cuts.

“It creates so much uncertainty in our businesses and our workplace that it affects our job creation, our economic recovery as states. We’re hoping that we can find some common ground,” she said. “We’ve asked the president for flexibility, we’ve asked him not to shift those costs down to the states.”

Republicans argue they have already compromised with Democrats by allowing an increase in tax rates in the fiscal cliff bill. And House Majority Leader Eric Cantor released a web video Monday that shows a series of clips in which Obama has said he wants to scour the federal budget “line by line, page by page” and cut programs that don’t work.

The video ends with text on the screen that reads: “Shouldn’t we go ‘line-by-line’ instead of raising taxes…again?…Spending is the problem.”

But the president, as he has many times, said Monday that a deficit-reduction plan needs a balance of both cuts and new revenue.

“We can’t just cut our way to prosperity. Cutting alone is not an economic policy,” he said.

CNN’s Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.

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