WASHINGTON — House Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn urged lawmakers Tuesday to consider stepping back from the mandatory spending cuts that are now in line because the deficit-reduction "supercommittee" failed to reach a deal last week on targeted reductions.
As a trade-off for raising the federal debt ceiling, Congress set up the special panel in August and gave it until Nov. 23 to find spending cuts that would lower the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over a decade. If the panel couldn't find agreement, Congress said, automatic reductions would go into effect in January 2013.
The specter of forced widespread cuts was supposed to pressure the panel's six Democrats and six Republicans into bridging partisan divides to devise their own plan, but they announced a failure to do so just before Thanksgiving.
Clyburn, a member of the supercommittee, suggested Tuesday that maybe the mandated spending reductions aren't such a good idea after all.
"I would love to see us do something that would not require that those triggers get pulled," the South Carolina congressman told MSNBC. "Because if those triggers get pulled, it's across the board. It is going to be nasty. It would be a meat-ax approach, and I don't think that's the best way to do it. So there's still time."
Clyburn's stance puts him at odds with President Barack Obama, who
s vowed to veto any bill that removes the mandatory cuts.
Clyburn is usually a close ally of Obama's but he said he'd oppose the president's stance on the spending reductions if necessary.
"It won't be the first time I've been at odds with the White House," Clyburn said.
Obama Press Secretary Jay Carney reiterated the president's position Monday.
"The whole purpose of the design of the sequester (mandated cuts) was to make it so onerous for everybody that it would never come to pass," Carney said. "To change it so that it is not so onerous only relieves pressure on Congress. And obviously Congress needs an immense amount of pressure to get positive things done."
Some Republicans have said that Clyburn and other Democrats secretly prefer the forced reductions because key Democratic voters — including Social Security recipients, Medicare beneficiaries and many poor Americans who depend on welfare, food stamps and other federal support programs — would be spared much of the pain.
With the Pentagon slated to bear half the brunt of the forced cuts, Clyburn adamantly denies the Republican claims. He's warned of the potential impact on military facilities across the country, among them the Army's Fort Jackson and Shaw Air Force Base in his state.
Clyburn also is concerned about funding reductions for public colleges and universities.
He became the second member of the supercommittee, which was equally divided between senators and representatives, to suggest removing the would-be hammer of forced spending cuts.
Freshman Sen. Patrick Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, said Sunday that the reductions should be rejiggered to lessen the impact on the military.
"I think there's a broad consensus that too much of the cuts are weighted on our defense's capabilities," Toomey said. "And it would cut in deeply our ability to defend this nation. So I think it's important that we change the configuration."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who didn't sit on the bipartisan panel, said he'd be willing to take a fresh look at the mandatory reductions because of their potential damage to the Pentagon's budget.
Graham, a South Carolina Republican, cited a letter that he and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, received from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta two weeks ago.
Panetta wrote that after a decade under the spending cuts, "we would have the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915 and the smallest Air Force in its history."
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