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GOP seeks flexibility in spending cuts

| Monday, Feb. 25, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

WASHINGTON — In a last-minute bid to minimize the most painful impacts of federal spending cuts — and perhaps blame — Republicans this week will propose allowing the government to choose where to cut.

They plan to introduce proposals to allow flexibility while maintaining the overall level of cuts mandated by a 2011 law.

The proposal is in response to the Obama administration's repeated complaint that the law doesn't allow managers the flexibility to shift the reductions from such areas as teachers or programs to help female victims of violence. It is a move to shelter the GOP from blame should the cuts cause widespread pain.

“As a leader, he should want as much flexibility as he can get from Congress,” said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association. “When did he ever go to his Cabinet secretaries, his agency heads and say, ‘What would be the least painful way?' ”

Democrats criticized the proposal, however, saying it would lock in the overall level of cuts — $85 billion for this fiscal year and $1.2 trillion over 10 years — which they argue would hurt the economy. They'll propose smaller spending reductions supplemented by tax increases.

“The overwhelming majority of Americans want us to compromise before our neighbors, friends and family members get pink slips or notices that they can only work for a few days a week this month,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Both proposals are expected to be unsuccessful in a divided Congress, leaving lawmakers scrambling to act just days before the cuts are to start taking effect. As of Monday, the two sides were not negotiating. President Obama will travel on Tuesday to Newport News, Va., to talk about the impact of Defense cuts.

The reductions — known inside the Beltway as sequestration — stem from a compromise between both parties to raise the nation's debt ceiling in 2011. Both sides agreed to the automatic cuts as a doomsday scenario to force them to find a more palatable way to reduce projected budget deficits. They did not find an alternative, however.

The first round of reductions — postponed from January — is estimated to be $85 billion. But the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicts that agencies will reduce spending by about $44 billion, with the remaining cuts made in future years.

The White House has spent months describing in detail what the reductions might mean in each state and agency, from Head Start programs to law enforcement officers. The administration has blamed the impact in part on the fact that the 2011 law gave it no room to move money around to meet essential services.

“There is very little flexibility in terms of how to make those cuts happen,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said last week. The White House didn't ask Congress to give the administration the flexibility to pick what programs would be slashed.

“The fact that the White House isn't banging on our door for flexibility is mind-boggling,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Supporters and opponents say Obama wants to avoid the reductions altogether while blaming Republicans for the most severe cuts. “They could score political points this way,” said Tad DeHaven, a budget analyst for the Cato Institute, a libertarian research center.

Jo Comerford, the executive director of the National Priorities Project, a nonpartisan, liberal-leaning research center that analyzes how tax dollars are spent, said she'd welcome flexibility but that the White House never pursued it because it wanted a balanced approach that comprised more than just spending cuts. “President Obama is saying there are other ways to move forward,” she said.

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