Budget dealings

Addressing the fact President Obama met with rank-and-file Republican leaders Wednesday regarding dealing with ‘the sequester,’ a U.S. Congressman says he just hopes the president is serious about working with Republicans on eliminating the budget deficit, reducing the federal deficit and spurring the sluggish U.S. economy.

Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman said he was invited to attend the Wednesday dinner meeting with the president but he declined explaining he had a previous engagement to discuss ways to decrease the budget deficit with a Democratic colleague. Obama’s guest list included Republican Sens. John McCain, of Arizona, Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, Pat Toomey, of Pennsylvania, Bob Corker, of Tennessee, Ron Johnson, of Wisconsin, Dan Coats, of Indiana, Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma, and Saxby Chambliss, of Georgia.

“I am hopeful this window of opportunity, which is really between now and the end of the summer when the debt limit is bound to come up again, can be taken advantage of because this is a critical opportunity and I think in some respects it is our last best chance before the president turns his attention more toward the 2014 election,” Portman  told journalists Thursday during a media teleconference. “I am hopeful the Republicans and Democrats, alike, take up the president’s offer to sit down and see what we can agree on and try to resolve some of these underlying problems that we have yet to address.

“The president loves to talk about how much we have done, but the reality is the Congressional Budget Office told us 10 days ago our projection over the next 10 years is not only to add trillions of dollars in debt, but to end up with a debt that as a percent of our economy is over 100 percent if you use the gross debt and over 75 percent if you use the public debt,” he said. “That is viewed as perilous and dangerous, it is viewed as something that puts the United States in a dangerous position as these countries in southern Europe experienced where they had a financial crisis — it has a potential of creating a huge crisis for us.”

Portman said if Obama is serious about the annual federal deficit and the national debt it would mean he would have to be willing to cut the entitlement programs and to institute pro-growth tax reform.

The U.S. senator from Ohio has been meeting with Republicans and Democrats regarding alternatives to the sequester, which on March 1 initiated  cuts totaling $85 billion in fiscal 2013 spending.

“I continue to believe there is an answer to the sequester and I have been working with Republicans and Democrats, alike, on the bigger question of dealing with the underlying problem of our unsustainable spending and specifically, the important but unsustainable programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — they need to be part of this longer term solution,” Portman said. “We also need to deal with tax reform which would give the economy a needed shot in the arm. We need to both grow the economy and deal with the spending.”

Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown also espouses a balanced approach of reducing the deficit and increasing taxes, noting using austerity programs alone, a tactic used in Greece, failed. Brown said everything is on the table and “we need to increase revenues and we have to make wise choices about where to cut.”

Portman explained the sequester cuts deals with a small part of the budget, a 17 percent share which is mainly defense spending. In the short term, he said he would like to provide the president with the flexibility to put the sequester cuts in place in a smarter way, and Congress needs to keep the savings through the sequester but also spare funding to needed programs and important area of the nation’s $3.55 trillion federal budget.

The sequester cuts are split between discretionary defense spending, such as weapons purchases and base operations (it does include military personnel), and discretionary and non-discretionary domestic programs, such as airport security and education and research grants.

According to a February report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the sequester includes $42.7 billion in cuts to discretionary defense spending, $28.7 billion in non-defense discretionary cuts, $9.9 billion in Medicare cuts and $4 billion in other cuts.

Time magazine reported this morning that Portman is to meet with Obama on Monday along with Tennessee U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and Oklahoma U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn. On Thursday, he had lunch with Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan and Maryland U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen.

Ryan, who was 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate, is known for his budget plans.

Prior to Wednesday night’s dinner meeting with 12 Republican U.S. senators, Obama warned Republicans about the impact of the sequester. He demanded Republicans replace the cuts with more targeted cuts and agree to additional tax hikes, but Republicans are refusing to raise taxes again after agreeing to hikes in December.