MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
Today, President Obama painted a bleak picture of what he called brutal automatic spending cuts. They're scheduled to begin one week from Friday. The president held an event at the White House this morning to urge Congress to stop the sequester. As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, he called on lawmakers to approve a stopgap measure that would buy time for a more comprehensive budget deal.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The $85 billion in automatic spending cuts were designed to be so toxic to both Democrats and Republicans they'd have to come up with a better alternative. But despite many rounds of negotiation, no agreeable alternative has emerged. So the once unthinkable cuts, known as the sequester, are now just 10 days away. President Obama has described those cuts as a meat cleaver that would strike indiscriminately at nearly every government program.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It won't consider whether we're cutting some bloated program that has outlived its usefulness or a vital service that Americans depend on every single day. It doesn't make those distinctions.
HORSLEY: To underscore that point, the president spoke in front of uniformed firefighters and law officers, saying even the country's emergency responders would be affected by the pending cuts.
OBAMA: Border patrol agents will see their hours reduced. FBI agents will be furloughed. Federal prosecutors will have to close cases and let criminals go.
HORSLEY: What's more, the White House says, there will be fewer food inspectors, fewer Head Start spaces, and fewer people answering phone calls at the IRS.
OBAMA: Air traffic controllers and airport security will see cutbacks, which means more delays in airports across the country. Thousands of teachers and educators will be laid off. Tens of thousands of parents will have to scramble to find child care for their kids.
HORSLEY: Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the president's warning as little more than a campaign event, and suggested the executive branch could easily keep federal dollars flowing to first responders by making deeper cuts elsewhere in the government. McConnell cited green energy programs as one likely target. But White House spokesman Jay Carney says the law requires the spending cuts to be made across the board.
JAY CARNEY: There is not the flexibility that some would suggest exists because the law is written the way it is, and it's a lot of money in a short period of time. The fact of the matter is, you cannot do this in a way that would not have tremendously harmful effects.
HORSLEY: Erskine Bowles, who co-chaired the president's deficit cutting commission, agrees: spreading the cuts evenly across programs is the wrong way to put the government's fiscal house in order. Bowles appeared alongside his co-chair, Alan Simpson, at a political breakfast this morning.
ERSKINE BOWLES: Look, there's no business in the country that makes its cuts across the board. You go in there and you try to seriously cut those things that have the least adverse effect on productivity. Second, they're cutting those areas where we actually need to invest: education, infrastructure, research. And third, they don't make any cuts in those things that are growing faster than the economy. That's stupid, stupid, stupid.
HORSLEY: Bowles and Simpson have, instead, called for a long-term effort that would cut the deficit by some $2.4 trillion. 600 billion of that would come from savings in the government's health care programs. Another 600 billion would come from higher tax revenue achieved by closing loopholes.
Obama has offered to go along with smaller cuts to health care programs but only if congressional Republicans agree to raise tax revenue. So far, he notes, Republicans want to make all the changes to the spending side.
OBAMA: Well, that's not balanced. That would be like Democrats saying we have to close our deficits without any spending cuts whatsoever. It's all taxes. That's not the position Democrats have taken, that's certainly not the position I've taken.
HORSLEY: By the time lawmakers return from their Presidents Day recess, they'll have less than a week to make a deal to avoid the automatic cuts. Obama calls this another manufactured crisis.
OBAMA: These cuts are not smart. They are not fair. They will hurt our economy. They will add hundreds of thousands of Americans to the unemployment rolls. This is not an abstraction. People will lose their jobs.
HORSLEY: Obama plans to keep making that case over the next 10 days and hopes public pressure will force Congress to push the pause button on the automatic cuts. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.