Who should shoulder the blame for the latest fiscal deadline set to disrupt the national economy if Congress doesn't intervene?
It depends on whom you ask.
The $85 billion mix of automatic cuts, known as the sequester, would be a "meat cleaver" to the economic recovery, President Barack Obama said Tuesday. Flanked by firefighters and emergency personnel, the president presented a dire scenario to the American public and called on Congress—particularly Republican members of the House of Representatives—to act.
"[It's] troubling that, just 10 days from now, Congress just might allow a series of automatic, severe budget cuts to take place," Obama said. "This is not an abstraction—people will lose their jobs."
The reductions would deal serious setbacks to the Pentagon and slash funding for discretionary spending areas, such as emergency services, national parks, Head Start funding for children and treatment for mentally ill patients, among other agencies.
Negotiations are at an impasse.
Chattanooga-area congressmen Rep. Chuck Fleischmann and Rep. Scott DesJarlais show no signs of heeding the president's call. Both congressmen reiterated the fact Tuesday that neither voted in favor of legislation that put the sequester in place, adding that they supported bills that would have offset the cuts—despite the fact that neither measure was ever considered by the U.S. Senate.
Fleischmann, a consistent proponent of curbing government spending, said the impending cuts were not the type of reductions he would prefer. The congressman said he would work to "limit the effect" of the sequester on 3rd District agencies, such as Oak Ridge National Laboratory, as best he could, but offered no clear solution as to how the cuts could be replaced with a feasible alternative.
"I think we all agree that we need to get more fiscally responsible and cut spending," Fleischmann said in an interview with Nooga.com. "The problem is the way we went about it with the sequester. Overwhelmingly hitting defense, Medicare and other programs—the only analogy that I could draw to this would be if we were sitting around a table, and we were a family, you would not cut your food budget the same way you would cut your entertainment budget. And that's unfortunately what the sequester does."
When asked if he thought the sequester would be implemented, the congressman was hesitant to offer any sort of forecast.
"I don't want to predict. I'm just going to work toward fiscal responsibility in a way that makes sense," he said.
Fleischmann, along with DesJarlais, voted against the Budget Control Act of 2011, which raised the national debt limit and implemented a supercommittee tasked with finding $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next decade. The failure of the committee eventually led to last year's fiscal cliff, and both congressmen also wound up opposing final legislation to avert the mix of tax increases and spending cuts, which delayed the sequester until March 1.
Robert Jameson, spokesman for DesJarlais, was quick to say that the 4th District congressman did not support the bill to establish the sequester from the beginning because he did not think it directly addressed "common sense spending cuts" that were needed.
"The congressman believes that it was a failure not to address these cuts from the beginning, which is why he voted against the bill that set up the supercommittee," Jameson said.
Republicans, including Fleischmann, have pinned the sequester directly on the White House, citing a passage in a book by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward that traced the origins of the sequester to White House staffers in 2011. Despite labeling the cuts as the "Obamaquester," no mention has been made by either congressman of 174 Republicans who favored the final bill.
Leaders for the Tennessee Democratic Party, however, blamed House Republicans for the impending crisis Tuesday. Democrats cited a 2012 study by George Mason's Dr. Stephen Fuller, which predicted the sequester would eliminate nearly 40,000 jobs in Tennessee and cost the state $2 billion in lost income.
"Middle-class families, children and seniors will bear the brunt of these harmful but completely avoidable cuts to vital government services," Brandon Puttbrese, communications director for the party, said in a news release. "These deep, automatic spending cuts were meant to be so unattractive and unappealing that Congress would act to avoid them by passing a balanced plan to reduce the deficit."
Congress returns to Washington, D.C., next week after a weeklong recess.