In a brief appearance in the White House briefing room, Obama asked lawmakers to come up with a quick fix that would postpone the automatic cuts and their "devastating" effects on the economy.
The economy is in recovery, Obama said, but that won’t continue if there are “self-inflicted wounds” caused by elected officials.
The economy shouldn’t be at risk “just because folks in Washington couldn’t come together to eliminate a few special-interest tax loopholes or government programs that we agreed need some reform,” he said.
The president said he still wants to deal with deficits over the longer term, but that he doesn’t want to see workers laid off and critical programs lapse while Congress works its way to a more broad-based budget solution.
When the automatic cuts were first devised in 2011, the $1.2-trillion in so-called sequester cuts were intentionally designed to be severe. Lawmakers on all sides believed they would force Congress to come up with a better alternative for deficit reduction.
But the deadline is drawing close and the sides are nowhere near a permanent solution. Democrats want to exchange the pending across-the-board cuts for tax revenue generated in part by ending tax breaks for oil and gas companies.
Republicans, meanwhile, see the looming sequester as one of their best chances to exact steep spending cuts. They want to steer away from reductions at the Pentagon and toward Medicare, food stamps and other domestic programs.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican minority leader, calls the Democrats' ideas “gimmicks.” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) argues that the public doesn’t support the idea of raising taxes in place of cutting spending.
“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,” Boehner said.
Speaking to reporters, Obama said he believes “modest reforms” in social insurance programs would eventually have to be paired with tax reform.
For the moment, he said, it appears a full budget “may not be finished” before the automatic cuts kick in. Congress can’t let that happen, he said.
“If Congress can’t act immediately on a bigger package,” he said, “they should at least pass a smaller package of spending cuts and tax reforms that would delay the economically damaging effects of the sequester for a few more months.”
After that, he said, the two sides can work together to replace cuts with a “smarter solution.”