The White House and Congress appeared no closer on February 26 to averting deep, across-the-board federal budget cuts set to happen Friday, with Democrats and Republicans using speeches and the media to blame each other for not stopping them.
The White House continued to sound warnings Tuesday about the potential consequences of the $85 billion in automatic and arbitrary cuts, called sequestration, which include reduced funding to the federal courts, the Department of Justice and legal aid groups.
President Barack Obama traveled to Newport News, Va., to speak at a shipbuilding company about the impacts on the defense industry, and once again stressed that "these cuts will force federal prosecutors to close cases and potentially let criminals go."
"There are too many Republicans in Congress right now who refuse to compromise even an inch when it comes to closing tax loopholes and special interest tax breaks," Obama said. "And that’s what’s holding things up right now."
Back in Washington, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. spoke at a gathering of state attorneys general and described the potential cuts’ effects on the entire justice system as "profound."
"If this so-called ‘sequester’ goes into effect, it will not only curtail the department’s ability to support our state and local partners, it will have a negative impact on the safety of Americans across the country," Holder said. "Our capacity—to respond to crimes, investigate wrongdoing, and hold criminals accountable —will be reduced."
But congressional Republicans questioned the Obama administration’s version of what will happen if the budget cuts take effect, particularly when it comes to the DOJ. They accused Democrats and the White House of playing up the effects of sequestration as a scare tactic to push through another tax increase.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said at a Capitol Hill press conference that he did not think Obama was focused on trying to find a solution to the sequester, but "using our military men and women as a prop in yet another campaign rally to support his tax hikes."
Boehner said Obama should be working with the Democratic-led Senate to avert sequestration, because he had threatened to veto two bills to replace the cuts that the Republican-led House already moved last session. "We should not have to move a third bill before the Senate gets off their ass and begins to do something," Boehner said.
Meanwhile, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) sent a letter to Holder on Tuesday asking for detailed information and memos about exactly how the DOJ "is ensuring that the sequester has the least possible impact on essential services."
Grassley was not satisfied with what Holder told Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) in a February 1 letter, which outlined the $1.6 billion cuts from the DOJ’s current funding level the agency could face under a sequestration.
"The ‘sky is falling’ approach that the attorney general is taking doesn’t help anyone," Grassley said in a statement. "It seems to me that if the department documented how it took into consideration what can and should be reduced not only gives confidence to the public, but ensures the department has done its due diligence to make sure that the least disruptions possible to law enforcement capabilities are taken."
In that letter, Holder estimated the department would lose more than 1,000 federal agents to combat violent crime, pursue financial crimes and help ensure national security, as well as 1,300 correctional officers in federal prisons.
The $100 million that would be cut from U.S. attorney office budgets would mean 2,600 fewer cases would be pursued than last fiscal year, including 1,600 fewer civil cases and 1,000 fewer criminal cases, Holder wrote.
Congress set up the cuts to be so odious that they would find better ways to compromise on cuts to the federal budget. They avoided the "fiscal cliff" on January 1 with a last-¬minute plan that delayed the automatic cuts until March 1. But in that time, Congress has still not passed a plan to avoid sequestration.
The Senate has agreed to have either Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) or Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) introduce a bill to replace the sequester under the Budget Control Act. As of the afternoon of February 26, no bill had yet been introduced.
Contact Todd Ruger at email@example.com.