Republicans will compromise as cuts bite: White House

WASHINGTON (AFP) - As the blame game over a stinging package of deficit-reducing spending cuts grinds on, the White House said on Sunday that as voters start to feel the pain, Republicans will pivot and seek compromise.

But the Republicans did not sound like they were in any mood to budge, with the party's Senate leader Mitch McConnell saying the American people understood it was time for belt-tightening.

The administration of President Barack Obama denied suggestions it was hyping the consequences of the so-called sequester - US$85 billion (S$105.7 billion) in military and domestic spending cuts crammed into the seven remaining months of the fiscal year.

Mr Gene Sperling, a top economic adviser to Mr Obama, made the rounds of morning talk shows to press the case that the president is still working the phones and seeking out lawmakers in both parties who are open to an alternative way to trim the bloated US$1 trillion a year deficit.

Mr Sperling said a Republican proposal to give the president more leeway in deciding what funding gets cut is not enough. The spending bludgeon will cost 750,000 jobs in an economy that is fragile, he said.

"When you have those type of harsh spending cuts in such a short concentrated period of time, it's like saying to somebody you can cut off three of your fingers, but you can have the flexibility to choose which ones you want to cut off," Mr Sperling said on ABC News.

"My belief is that as this pain starts to gradually spread... more Republican colleagues who are concerned about this harm to their constituents will choose bipartisan compromise." But Mr McConnell said a bipartisan agreement from 2011 to cut the deficit had to be honoured and that the sequester, which stems from that accord, could be tweaked but not eliminated.

"The American people look at this and say, gee, I've had to cut my budget more than this, probably on numerous occasions over the last four years, because we've had such a tepid economy now for four long years," Mr McConnell told CNN. "I think they expect us to keep the commitment that we made."

Republican Senator John McCain, whom Mr Obama defeated in the 2008 White House race, accused the president of failing to show leadership by not averting the sequester and said cuts to military spending would hurt national security.

"If (Obama) will stop going out and running campaign events and bashing Republicans and come back to Washington - why not take a day and invite us all over and work this out?" Mr McCain told CBS's Face The Nation programme.

Mr Obama signed an order bringing what he called the "dumb" spending cuts into effect on Friday after a last-ditch meeting with congressional leaders went nowhere.

The measures could mean long lines at US border posts, reduced military readiness, cuts to special needs education programmes, and will trim the resources of some emergency services, according to White House officials.

The cuts were never meant to take effect but rather were a poisoned pill clause attached to the 2011 agreement to raise the debt ceiling, and designed to be so scary that lawmakers would find a less drastic way to cut the deficit.

They failed and the sequester is here, although its effects are expected to take weeks to be felt.

"When this sequester goes off, yes, it's not going to hurt as much on day one," Mr Sperling said.

"But, again, every independent economist agrees it is going to cost our economy 750,000 jobs, just as our economy has a chance to take off." Mr Obama is pressing for what he calls a more balanced approach that includes concessions: changes to entitlement programmes, like medical care for the elderly and poor, as sought by Republicans.

But he wants any deal to include fresh revenue from closing tax loopholes enjoyed by companies and wealthy Americans.

Mr Obama won a showdown late last year over the fiscal cliff - which threatened to let across-the-board George W. Bush-era tax cuts expire - when Republicans agreed to higher taxes on the rich.

But they drew the line there, and now insist that any deficit deal has to focus solely on cutting spending.

"He got his tax hikes. It's time to cut spending. And every American knows it," House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner told ABC.

Mr Boehner said neither Republicans nor Democrats were likely to cry uncle any time soon and eliminate the sequester.

"I don't think anyone quite understands how it gets resolved," Mr Boehner said.

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