WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim Inhofe scrambled Wednesday to find support for a proposal to give the military some room to maneuver if deep spending cuts are triggered Friday, as leaders from both parties continued to blame each other for not reaching an agreement on spending and taxes.
Inhofe, R-Tulsa, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, wants to shield the Defense Department from the worst effects of the cuts by giving the Obama administration some leeway in shifting funds around.
The department has warned that it might have to furlough nearly 800,000 civilian employees, including 24,000 in Oklahoma, for 22 days between late April and late September and cut back on maintenance and training.
Inhofe's latest effort would also allow the administration more flexibility in making cuts to other domestic agencies subjected to the process, known as the sequester; the senator previously authored an amendment that applied only to the military.
However, proposals from Republicans and Democrats regarding the looming cuts are expected to face partisan opposition, and no action is expected this week to replace them.
Legislation passed in 2011 requires $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years, with $85 billion of that coming in the period between March 1 and Sept. 30.
President Barack Obama has invited congressional leaders from both parties to the White House on Friday, the day the cuts are expected to take effect, but there has been no change in the rhetoric to make an agreement seem near.
Obama wants the sequester replaced with a package of targeted spending cuts and tax hikes through changes in the tax code. Republican leaders have ruled out raising more revenue.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday, “What we have not seen from the Republicans is anything like the willingness to compromise inherent in the proposals that the president has put forward.”
But Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, said his constituents don't want more tax increases.
“Look, we know that most Americans think Washington's spending problem should be addressed by cutting spending,” McConnell said.
It will be several weeks before some federal agencies can institute the furloughs they're planning, giving the president and Congress some breathing room before the most drastic effects.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, gave a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday reviewing the numerous reports he has issued about waste in the federal government, including at the Defense Department.
“If we give the administration the flexibility, we could easily swallow $85 billion in reductions,” Coburn said.
Coburn said his reports — including one on federal tax and another on subsidies to people who make more than $1 million a year — have failed to gain traction, but they may now.
The senator said there was $70 billion in unspent money sitting in federal accounts “that we could pull back if we had effective management.”
The federal government has 47 separate job training programs, 253 Justice Department grant programs and 56 financial literacy programs, Coburn said, quoting from Government Accountability Office research on duplicative programs.
Coburn said the cuts taking effect this week will be painful, but they didn't have to be.
“All it takes is a small drop of common sense and Congress and the executive branch to work our way through these problems,” he said.
“We're going to cut this money one way or the other. … We're going to cut it because the math in our future is going to force us to cut it.”