Rhetoric is name of the game in America's brinkmanship budget battle

Both Republicans and Democrats master the verbal sleights of hand in the continuing fights in Washington over spending cuts, taxes increases and the federal deficit.

Capitol moves: President Obama and the US Congress have racked up more than $3.6tn in savings as the belt tightening continues. Jewel Samad / AFP
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Unlike in earlier rounds of budget brinkmanship, the United States president, Barack Obama, and the congressional Republicans both seem content to fight out their latest showdown on the current terrain, let across-the-board spending cuts take effect on March 1 and allow them to stay in place for weeks if not much longer.

This time, there is no market-rattling threat of a government default to force the two sides to compromise, no federal shutdown on the short-term horizon and no year-end deadline for preventing a tax increase for every working American.

The rhetoric is reminiscent, for sure.

"So far at least, the ideas that the Republicans have proposed ask nothing of the wealthiest Americans or the biggest corporations," Mr Obama said last week as he campaigned to pin the blame for any negative effects on his political opponents. "So the burden is all on the first responders or seniors or middle-class families," he said in comments similar in tone to his re-election campaign.

Republicans, standing on political ground of their own choosing, responded sharply to the president's fresh demand for higher taxes.

"Spending is the problem; spending must be the focus," said the US House of Representatives speaker, John Boehner of Ohio, while the senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky declared, "There won't be any easy off-ramps on this one. The days of 11th-hour negotiations are over."

A crisis atmosphere could yet develop this spring, when hundreds of thousands or even millions of threatened government furloughs begin to take effect and the spending cuts begin to bite.

Already, Republicans are considering legislation to give the administration greater flexibility in making the cuts, a step that could minimise the impact on the public. It is a step the White House says it opposes, although the depth of that conviction has yet to be tested.

At heart, the standoff is yet another indication of the political resistance to a compromise curbing the growth of Medicare, Medicaid and possibly Social Security, a step that both Mr Obama and Republicans say is essential to restoring the nation's fiscal health.

It is the last major remaining challenge in divided government's struggle, now in its third year, to reduce deficits by US$4 trillion (Dh14.69tn) or more over a decade.

Counting the across-the-board cuts now beginning to command the nation's attention - at a 10-year cost of $1.2tn - the president and congress have racked up more than $3.6tn in savings. Much came from spending, although legislation that Republicans let pass at year's end raised taxes on the wealthy to generate an estimated $600 billion for the Treasury over a decade.

The so-called sequester now approaching was never supposed to happen. It was designed as an unpalatable fallback, to take effect only in case a congressional super-committee failed to come up with $1tn or more in savings from benefit programmes.

Now, more than a year later, Republicans are fond of saying that the idea itself originated at the White House.

That skips lightly over the fact that their own votes helped to enact it into law.

Also that they decided a month ago that it marked the moment of most leverage in their struggle to manoeuvre Mr Obama and Democrats into curtailing benefit programmes.

To accomplish that objective, they already have raised the debt limit without winning any cuts in exchange, a step they once vowed not to take.

And within two weeks, they are likely to launch legislation making sure the government operates without interruption when current funding authority runs out for most agencies on March 27.

Republicans aren't the only ones partial to verbal sleights of hand.

In a letter to lawmakers this month, the health and human services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, sounded a series of alarms. The spending cuts "could compromise" the health of more than 373,000 mentally ill or emotionally disturbed individuals, "could slow efforts to improve" health care for American Indians and Alaska Natives, she wrote, and admissions to inpatient addiction facilities "could be reduced".

Could or could not. Soon or later. Nothing pinned down.

The administration hopes to win over the public and bring Republican lawmakers to heel, and it dispatched the transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, to the White House briefing room on Friday.

"Come to the table and start talking" to find a way to avert the cuts, the former Republican lawmaker urged members of his own party.

Peppered with sceptical questions, Mr LaHood directed reporters to his department's website, with a listing of more than 300 air-traffic facilities where overnight shifts could be eliminated or perhaps closed entirely.

Asked if his office was receiving unhappy calls from the public, he got to the political point.

"My phones will ring from members of congress [asking] 'why is my control tower being closed?'," he said.

* Associated Press