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The sequester stand-off

Our view: Can Congress or the White House offer anything more than lip service to the looming automatic spending cuts that will surely damage the economic recovery?

1:31 PM EST, February 6, 2013

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Is this really the best anyone in Washington can do to avert sequestration?

President Barack Obama's call for delaying the automatic spending cuts past the March 1 deadline would seem reasonable enough, except he hasn't really offered up a specific plan to do so. Instead, he's recommended that a few months of delay might be achieved through a "smaller package of spending cuts and tax reform."

Republicans are flatly rejecting any form of tax increase (and, apparently, ending a tax break on corporate jets is regarded as just that by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell) and seem to be satisfied that the sequester cuts — even those that would harm the military — are better than another two-month delay.

Meanwhile, it's clear that if the sequester is allowed to go through, the U.S. economy will suffer. The Congressional Budget Office forecasts lower economic growth and higher unemployment this year because of those cuts.

Sequestration was never meant to actually take place. The draconian cuts were presented as an incentive for Congress to take more responsible action. That means some combination of spending reductions and revenue increases, the same sort of balanced approach that was recommended by the Simpson-Bowles commission and the kind that has reduced deficits in this country before.

This really isn't rocket science. The U.S. needs to both grow the economy and reduce the deficit. Making indiscriminate cuts isn't a rational way to achieve this. Yet here we are. The sequester looms, and the two sides can't even find enough common ground to come up with a measly multibillion-dollar alternative to at least delay it.

What happened to concerns about how devastating these automatic reductions would be to national security? Or how about the economy? Just when consumer confidence is growing, the stock market is riding high and a sense of momentum is evident, we're going to reduce growth by a full percentage point or more?

What's happening now seems like a strangely muted response considering the stakes involved. It's as if the two sides have now accepted that this idiocy is really going to happen, so there's not much they can do about. They're going through the motions, at best.

Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's much-noted speech Tuesday to the American Enterprise Institute, in which he embraced everyday issues of education and inclusiveness, seems as much an effort to change the subject away from fiscal concerns as anything else. Republicans haven't stopped singing their tea party tune, they've just decided to hum it a little softer.

That's shameful. There's no reason why Democrats and Republicans can't find common ground on the budget. They both need to make painful choices that offend core supporters. That's what real leadership on this issue requires.

A delay might not seem like much of an accomplishment, but that doesn't make postponing the sequester the wrong thing to do. Substituting short-term reasonableness for long-term irrationality is never wrong. It's not much to brag about, but it is a small step in the right direction.

When will House Republicans finally acknowledge that Mr. Obama won re-election last November and that the GOP's one-sided, cut-our-way-to-prosperity approach to fixing the deficit is not supported by a majority of voters — or sound economics? And when will Democrats stand up for serious entitlement reform? Surely, there are steps — like changing the way cost-of-living adjustments are made to Social Security benefits — that even liberals in Congress could support.

The major roadblock at this point appears to be indifference on both sides. As much as GOP House Speaker John Boehner says he opposes the sequester and that it's taking a "meat ax to our government," it's clear he doesn't hate it enough to make the needed concessions.

President Obama may be more forceful in his opposition to sequestration, but that doesn't mean he's ready to give ground either. Maybe it's brinkmanship, or perhaps resignation, but he's obviously not about to endorse using cuts to the social safety net to spare the Pentagon.

Perhaps this standoff makes perfect sense inside the Capital Beltway, but to the rest of the country, it looks just like an abdication of leadership. The March 1 deadline is close and getting closer by the hour. With so much at stake, the lack of political willpower is just infuriating.

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