President Barack Obama on Tuesday directed Congress to pass short-term spending cuts and tax reform measures to avoid automatic cuts known as the sequester.
Speaking to reporters in the White House briefing room, Obama said he was taking the step because Congress appears unlikely to pass a balanced budget by March 1. Failure to do so by that date would trigger deep, across-the-board domestic and military spending cuts economists say could imperil the nation's fragile economic recovery.
"If Congress can't act immediately ... and get the bigger package done by the time the sequester is scheduled to go into effect, they should at least pass a smaller package of spending cuts and tax reforms that would delay the economically damaging effect of sequester," Obama said.
The president touted recent positive economic news, including rising home prices and car sales, improvements in the manufacturing industry and overall job creation. But he said fiscal uncertainty in Washington threatens that progress, prompting the White House to act today as the budget remains in flux.
He added, "There is no reason that the jobs of thousands of Americans who work in national security or education or clean energy, not to mention the growth of the economy, should be put in jeopardy" by a failure to reach a broader deal.
Obama said the same proposals he offered during "fiscal cliff" negotiations "are still very much on the table," including closing loopholes for the nation's wealthiest and some corporations, which many Republicans in Congress oppose.
Until now the White House has repeatedly sidestepped questions regarding how the president would respond to a sequester, saying it was never meant to be put into practice.
Sequestration was created as part of the fiscal cliff deal reached at the start of the year as a way to force Democrats and Republicans to pass a budget resolution—something the Senate hasn't done since 2009—instead of using short-term fixes to keep the economy running.
Republicans have been eager to pass a budget resolution and used the president's decision on Tuesday to accuse Obama of delaying real deficit and debt solutions.
"The president, who first proposed the sequester, and who just last year claimed that the sequester ‘will not happen,’ now wants to ‘delay’ the sequester for a few months with more permanent tax hikes at a time when American families are already feeling the pinch of the Obama economy," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement after the president's speech.
McConnell also called on the president to lay out specific reforms.
Other Republicans faulted the president for the current budget situation.
Before Obama's announcement, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday issued a statement criticizing the president for failing to send his budget to Congress before the Feb. 4 deadline: "The president has had five opportunities to do it, and he has missed the deadline four of the last five times. For baseball fans, that is a .200 batting average."
And House Speaker John Boehner touted House Republican efforts to pass budget legislation, saying in a statement:
“President Obama first proposed the sequester and insisted it become law. Republicans have twice voted to replace these arbitrary cuts with common-sense cuts and reforms that protect our national defense. We believe there is a better way to reduce the deficit, but Americans do not support sacrificing real spending cuts for more tax hikes. The president’s sequester should be replaced with spending cuts and reforms that will start us on the path to balancing the budget in 10 years.”
Chris Moody contributed to this story.