LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Congress threatened itself with punishment if it failed to act. Lawmakers promised automatic spending cuts if a special committee failed to reduce the deficit. Now that they have failed, some want a way out of the punishment with which they had threatened themselves. This may be just one more episode in a long fight over taxes and spending, as we hear from NPR's Ari Shapiro.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: This chapter in the saga over cutting the deficit ended more or less the same way the last chapter did, with Congressional failure and a blame game. President Obama stood in the White House briefing room and accused Republicans of refusing to compromise.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They continue to insist on protecting the 100 billion dollars worth of tax cuts for the wealthiest two percent of Americans at any cost.
SHAPIRO: He pointed out that members of his own party moved a great distance, offering changes to entitlements, including Social Security and Medicare. Many in the Democratic base opposed those changes. But just like last summer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell saw it differently. In a written statement he said, quote, "An agreement proved impossible not because Republicans were unwilling to compromise, but because Democrats would not accept any proposal that did not expand the size and scope of government," end quote. It came down, again, to spending cuts versus tax increases, the same tension that has defined this stalemate from the debate's earliest days. But President Obama explained that this time is different. This time, he said, we will be trimming the deficit by a total of at least $2.2 trillion over 10 years.
OBAMA: That's going to happen, one way or another. We've got $1 trillion locked in, and either Congress comes up with $1.2 trillion, which so far they've failed to do, or the sequester kicks in and these automatic spending cuts will occur that bring in an additional $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction.
SHAPIRO: Sequesters and automatic spending cuts. Those are the painful incentives that Congress established to encourage compromise, deep budget reductions in military and domestic programs.-Now that the panel has failed to compromise, some lawmakers want to undo the trap. Here was Republican Senator Lindsey Graham earlier this month.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: If the committee fails, I'm not going to allow the triggers to be pulled that would shoot the Defense Department in the head.
SHAPIRO: Last night President Obama said he won't let lawmakers off the hook.
OBAMA: My message to them is simple. No. I will veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts to domestic and defense spending. There will be no easy off-ramps on this one. We need to keep the pressure up to compromise, not turn off the pressure.
SHAPIRO: There's another year until the cuts take effect. That's the same time the Bush-era tax cuts are set to expire, which is another important bargaining chip in this debate. The White House believes the pressure of looming budget cuts and tax hikes could still push Congress to compromise. As one senior White House official put it, we don't think the sequester is the ideal option for this country, but you've got to leave this in place because sadly that's what's required to force action. Still, it's not at all clear that even the threat of deep cuts will be enough to force action. As President Obama blames the GOP for protecting the wealthy at all costs, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions went on Fox News to accuse the president of showing no leadership.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)
SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS: The commander-in-chief is absent from battle. He needs to be leading in this. If he had told this debt committee, this 12, that he wanted an agreement, we would have had one.
SHAPIRO: The White House says Sessions is rewriting history. President Obama did offer a detailed proposal for cutting $3 trillion in deficits. Still, he was not deep in negotiations as he was last summer. So the extremely hands-on approach did not succeed the first time, and letting Congress do its own thing did not work this time. Now the path to bipartisanship is murky as ever. But bipartisanship of some kind is required immediately. As President Obama noted last night, payroll tax cuts, long-term unemployment benefits, and other economic boosters are set to expire at the end of the year unless Congress acts.
OBAMA: And I can only hope that members of Congress who've been fighting so hard to protect tax breaks for the wealthy will fight just as hard to protect tax breaks for small business owners and middle class families.
SHAPIRO: So those fights will occupy Washington for the next month. And then they can get back to fighting over the deficit in 2012. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.