Congress may try blocking cuts if debt panel fails

WASHINGTON (AP) - Failure by Congress' debt-cutting supercommittee to recommend $1.2 trillion in savings by Wednesday is supposed to automatically trigger spending cuts in the same amount to accomplish that job.

But the same legislators who concocted that budgetary booby trap just four months ago could end up spending the 2012 election year and beyond battling over defusing it.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., say they are writing legislation to prevent what they say would be devastating cuts to the military. House Republicans are exploring a similar move. Democrats maintain they won't let domestic programs be the sole source of savings.

In the face of those efforts, President Barack Obama has told the debt panel's co-chairmen that he "will not accept any measure that attempts to turn off the automatic cut trigger," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters last week. The leaders of both parties in the House and Senate have expressed similar sentiments - seemingly making any attempt to restore the money futile.

"Yes, I would feel bound by it," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said recently of the automatic cuts. "It was part of the agreement."

But that doesn't mean rank-and-file lawmakers won't try to block the cuts, or that viewpoints might not change if the right deal is offered - especially in the hothouse atmosphere of next year's presidential and congressional campaign or its aftermath.

With nearly $500 billion in defense spending and an equal amount of domestic dollars at stake, plenty of lawmakers are ready to try blocking all or parts of those automatic cuts, if only to win favor from backers of programs whose funds are on the chopping block.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he wants to stick with the automatic cuts but would like to reshape them so they rely less heavily on defense.

Several lawmakers talked of the possibility of easing the impact of the automatic cuts on defense in interviews on Sunday news programs.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, co-chairman of the supercommittee, said he hopes the current projected split of half defense, half domestic, for the automatic spending cuts will be changed in the event no deal emerges from his panel.

"But I am committed to insuring that the American people get that deficit reduction that they were promised," he said on Fox News Sunday. "But under the law, Congress will have 13 months to do that I n a smarter, more prudent fashion."

"Maybe sequestration is our only way we will get any kind of cuts," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said on CNN's "State of the Union."

Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" he believes the Pentagon cuts would be devastating. "But we do have the opportunity, even if the committee fails, to work around the sequester so that we still have $1.2 trillion in savings over 10 years, but it's not done in the very Draconian way that Secretary Panetta is referring to."

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said, "If they're going to try to protect defense, there'll be pushback."

On the domestic side, the law exempts Social Security, Medicaid and many veterans' benefits and low-income programs. It also limits Medicare to a 2 percent reduction.

Still, that leaves education, agriculture and the environment programs exposed to cuts of around 8 percent in 2013, CBO says. For many Democrats, those are cuts worth fighting against, especially if Republicans try protecting defense programs.

The temptation to block the automatic cuts could grow even larger right after the 2012 elections, depending on the results.

The 2001 and 2003 tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush are scheduled to expire in January 2013. Extending them is a top GOP priority, while Democrats want to let them expire for the highest-earning Americans.

If either party wins White House and congressional control, its members could be ready to reshape both the automatic spending cuts and the tax cuts to their liking.