Federal Budget Battle Looming: Obama Says ‘I Will Not Sign’

Just days after House and Senate Republicans unveiled their budgets for the coming fiscal year, President Obama declared that he will not sign any budget that allows for sequestration to return in October of 2015.

“I will not,” President Obama said in an interview with the Huffington Post. “And I’ve been very clear. We are not going to have a situation where, for example, our education spending goes back to its lowest level since the year 2000 — since 15 years ago — despite a larger population and more kids to educate…. We can’t do that to our kids, and I’m not going to sign it.”

Obama’s comments, in the face of both the House and Senate budget proposals — which cut programs such as food stamps and education while adding heavily to defense spending — signals that a battle over the federal budget is once again looming.

Currently, the law states that sequestration, which entails strict spending caps on both defense and non-defense accounts, will return in October, with discretionary spending reduced by more than $90.4 billion. If that were to occur, Obama’s domestic priorities would suffer a major setback, according to the Huffington Post. His current priorities will require large investments, with focus on programs like child care, rebuilding infrastructure, research and development, and education.

And although Republican budgets call for such cuts, the idea that defense spending will also set major financial setbacks is one that Republicans strenuously object to, meaning that sequestration is not their favorite option, either.

Ultimately, the federal budget is not law, but a “set of guidelines within with which congressional appopriators are asked to operate,” but with the two approaches to the budget being on such opposite ends of the spectrum, it seems unlikely that bipartisan agreement is even possible, meaning that lawmakers will need to pass a continuing resolution simply to keep the government open and operating. If that happens, sequestration returns automatically on October 1, 2015, and since President Obama has flatly stated that he will not sign a bill that allows that to happen, Americans are once again facing the possibility of another government shut down.

But President Obama is counting on that not happening, because congressional Republicans will be eager to prevent the Defense Department from suffering from the automatic spending cuts should sequestration return. With budgets that have been described, at best, as austere and, at worst, cruel, increased defense spending is central to both.

It’s the idea that congressional Republicans are willing to slash the budget in regards to safety net programs and public education, while adding heavily to defense spending, has caused some some eyebrow-raising from those who oppose such plans.

“This discussion is really quite extraordinary,” said Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a liberal independent who is also a ranking member of the Budget Committee. “You’re always telling us the deficit is so bad we’ve got to cut programs for the elderly, for the sick and for the poor, and suddenly all of that rhetoric disappears.”

Others take issue with the Republicans’ use of the “magic asterisk” that the budgets use to stand in for what Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize-winning economist and columnist for the New York Times, describes as “the mysterious trillions in unspecified spending cuts and revenue enhancements” on top of the already drastic spending cuts. Krugman, along with many others, are concerned about where the trillions represented by the “magic asterisk” will come from, especially in light of the already drastic spending cuts proposed.

“There would be savage cuts in food stamps, similarly savage cuts in Medicaid over and above reversing the recent expansion, and an end to Obamacare’s health insurance subsidies. Rough estimates suggest that either plan would roughly double the number of Americans without health insurance. But both also claim more than a trillion dollars in further cuts to mandatory spending, which would almost surely have to come out of Medicare or Social Security. What form would these further cuts take? We get no hint.”

Still, despite drawing a line in the sand when it comes to the budget, Obama remains hopeful that some agreement can be reached.

“If we can find some common ground around that, and if we can recognize that given the economic growth, given the reduction in deficits, now’s the time for us to make sure that we are making the investments we need to continue to grow and to keep our country safe, then we can do what Senator Murray did with Congressman Ryan, and plus-up both the defense and non-defense budgets,” said Obama, referring to the current spending deal that was reached in a bipartisan manner between Senator Murray, a Democrat, and Congressman Ryan, a Republican.

“If President Obama is now serious about stopping his sequester,” says Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, “he should put forward a plan to replace it with smarter cuts and reforms. Reckless threats, like the president’s past pushes for tax hikes, only undermine genuine efforts to help create the jobs and opportunities middle-class families need.”

Republicans have long been critical of President Obama, claiming that Obama has ignored the problems of long-term debt and entitlement reforms. Obama, however, shrugs the criticisms off.

“At that time, we were seeing significantly higher deficits, and the economy was just beginning to grow. We now know that we’ve got strong growth,” Obama says. “As a consequence, as I argued at the time, the deficits have come down — they are now below three percent of our GDP, our gross domestic product, which is a stable place for us to be.”

What do you think? Should the federal budget include steep cuts to programs like education and infrastructure while adding tremendously to defense spending? Or should the budget focus on investing more heavily in such programs?

[Photo by Pool / Getty Images]