Obama signs order for painful budget cuts

(By Deutsche Welle) US President Barack Obama has signed an order that starts putting into effect across-the-board budget cuts known as the “sequester” after he and congressional leaders failed to find an alternative budget plan.

Huge spending cuts will start to hit the US starting Saturday after President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans failed to find a compromise budget. Obama signed an order authorizing the cuts Friday night, officially enacting the across-the-board reductions.

With the series of automatic spending cuts, Democrats and Republicans are playing a game of political chicken, with neither party willing to compromise in the latest round of America’s 18-month-old fiscal drama. A last-ditch round of talks between President Barack Obama and congressional leaders ended without a breakthrough. After the talks Obama described the cuts that now have gone into effect as “dumb” and “arbitrary” and warned of the negative impact on the economy and jobs.

The $85 billion (65 billion euros) in across-the-board cuts for fiscal year 2013, called sequestration, will equally impact both defense and social spending. Another $1.2 trillion of austerity will then set in over the next decade. Designed originally as a strategy to intimidate hyper-partisan members of Congress into a compromise on taxes and spending, sequestration was never actually supposed to become reality.

But now, both sides of the political aisle are pointing fingers as Washington prepares to fall on its own sword.

“Unfortunately, it appears that Republicans in Congress have decided that instead of compromising  – instead of taking anything from the wealthiest Americans – they would rather let these cuts fall squarely on the middle class,” US President Barack Obama said in his weekly radio address on Saturday.

Having already agreed in January to postpone the sequester by two months and raise taxes on families earning more than $450,000, many Republicans are unprepared to meet the president’s demands on revenue this time around.

“Most Americans are just hearing about this Washington creation for the first time: the sequester,” John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives, wrote in a Wall Street Journal editorial on February 20. “What they may not realize from Mr. Obama’s statements is that it is a product of the president’s own failed leadership.”

According to Ron Haskins, an expert on budget issues at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., the parties are unwilling to forge a bi-partisan agreement on austerity because they would be held politically accountable by their constituencies for the economic pain. So they are increasingly prepared to let the sequester go into effect and try to push the blame on their adversaries.

“I don’t think they have really made a rational calculation,” Haskins told DW. “I think that probably the main element in their thinking is that they can blame the other team – that’s what they’re hoping.”

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Little sign of progress on US debt deal

(By Deutsche Welle) Negotiations in Washington to raise the nation’s debt limit have faltered on the partisan political divide. Credit rating agencies and Asian countries have warned the US to adopt responsible fiscal policies.

Republicans and Democrats have reached an impasse in an escalating ideological battle over raising the US debt ceiling, with the rating agency Moody’s threatening to downgrade Washington’s credit worthiness if the two sides fail to find a compromise by August 2 – a move that could destabilize the global economy.

“It’s the foundation of our financial system,” US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said during a recent congressional hearing. “The notion that it would become suddenly unreliable and illiquid would throw shock waves through the entire global financial system.”

Tax increases versus spending cuts

Both political parties agree in principle that the US must increase its $14.29 trillion (9.8 trillion euros) debt ceiling in order to continue paying its bills and avoid a short-term default on its financial obligations. Negotiations, however, have reached a stalemate due to a partisan divide over the appropriate balance between taxes and spending cuts.

Republicans have preconditioned any debt limit increase on parallel cuts in spending while at the same time rejecting tax increases across the board. Democrats, meanwhile, have been reluctant to make cuts in social programs such as Medicare and Medicaid that could alienate their electoral base, proposing instead to raise taxes on wealthier Americans.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama appeared on track to bridge the divide through a “grand bargain” that would have included a $3 trillion reduction in spending and $1 trillion in tax increases. Rank-and-file Republicans led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, however, rejected the deal due to the tax hikes.

In lieu of the politically risky “grand bargain,” Cantor reportedly called for a short-term solution rooted in spending cuts. Cantor’s proposal prompted Obama to dig in his heels against Republican demands in what has become a volatile game of political brinkmanship.

“The problem is that there is no party discipline,” Josef Braml, an expert on American politics at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle.

“Obama can’t get his liberals on board. On the other side, it’s difficult for Republicans to get the Tea Party guys involved because they would commit electoral suicide if they agreed to tax increases.”

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