WASHINGTON First the White House and Congress created a potential fiscal crisis, agreeing more than a year ago to once-unthinkable government spending cuts in 2013 unless the two parties agreed to alternative ways to reduce budget deficits.
Now that those cuts are imminent because compromise is not they have created one of Washington's odder blame games over just whose bad idea this was.
The battle lines over cuts that are scheduled to begin Friday, known in budget parlance as sequestration, were evident Saturday in President Barack Obama's weekly address and the Republican response, by Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota.
"Unfortunately, it appears that Republicans in Congress have decided that instead of compromising, instead of asking anything of the wealthiest Americans, they would rather let these cuts fall squarely on the middle class," said Obama, who has proposed a mix of spending cuts and new revenues from repealing some tax breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations.
He added: "Are Republicans in Congress really willing to let these cuts fall on our kids' schools and mental health care just to protect tax loopholes for corporate jet owners? Are they really willing to slash military health care and the Border Patrol just because they refuse to eliminate tax breaks for big oil companies?"
For Republicans, who oppose any tax increases, Hoeven countered: "He blames Congress for the sequester, but Bob Woodward, in his book 'The Price of Politics,' sets the record straight. Woodward says it was President Obama who proposed and promoted the sequester."
What makes this debate over blame so odd is that both sides' fingerprints and votes are all over the sequestration concept. The point of sequestration, in fact, was to define cuts that were so arbitrary and widespread that they would be unpalatable to both sides and force a deal.
That won Republicans' support for increasing the government's debt limit in 2011 and thereby averted the nation's first default. The Republican-led House and Democratic-led Senate each passed the accord overwhelmingly, and Obama gladly signed it.
The idea for sequestration did come from the White House, as news accounts made clear at the time Jacob Lew, then Obama's budget director and now his nominee for treasury secretary, was the main proponent.
Lew, who was a senior adviser to the House speaker in the 1980s, lifted language from a 1985 law he helped negotiate, the Gramm-Rudman law. It was conceived by two Republican senators to be "a sword of Damocles," as they said at the time, one that hung over the two parties, poised to strike unless they compromised on deficit reduction.
The law was ruled unconstitutional, and afterward, the Democratic-controlled Congress and President Ronald Reagan enacted a modified version, which resulted in relatively minor cuts until 1990. That year, the law's call for much larger cuts in the face of growing deficits helped force Congress and President George H.W. Bush to negotiate a five-year package of spending cuts and tax increases that is widely credited with contributing to balanced budgets later that decade.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2011. Obama and congressional Republicans were able to agree to nearly $1 trillion in reductions over a decade in "discretionary" spending programs, which cover just about everything the government does except the entitlement benefit programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
But they could not agree on the final $1.2 trillion. Obama demanded that that amount come from higher taxes on the wealthy and some reductions in entitlement spending. Republicans insisted on entitlement cuts only.
So both parties started negotiating for a trigger, as they called it an undesirable, automatic action that would slash deficits if Democrats and Republicans could not. Obama and Democrats wanted a trigger mandating automatic spending cuts and tax increases; Republicans insisted on spending cuts only.
Democrats conceded, and that is when Lew along with Gene Sperling, director of Obama's National Economic Council proposed the Gramm-Rudman sequestration. Given that law's Republican parentage, the Obama advisers figured this kind of trigger would appeal to Republicans, and it did.
Speaker John Boehner and three-quarters of House Republicans voted for the agreement. To use Hoeven's word, both parties "promoted" their compromise, including sequestration. Boehner said he had gotten "98 percent" of what he wanted.
Their bipartisan thinking was this: With indiscriminate automatic cuts taken equally from domestic spending and from Pentagon accounts, Republicans would so badly want to avoid cutting military spending that they would accept some tax increases. And Democrats would be so eager to avoid cuts in domestic programs that they would drop their opposition to reductions in future entitlement benefits for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
It has not worked out that way.
The blame game started during the 2012 election. Republicans, including presidential nominee Mitt Romney, blamed Obama for the looming military cuts. And while Obama generally said that sequestration was something that both parties should work to avoid, in an October debate with Romney he seemed to disavow the idea altogether.
"The sequester is not something that I've proposed," he said. "It is something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen."
At that time, Republicans and Democrats generally assumed that sequestration would not happen because they would reach a compromise. But that was before Republicans angered their conservative base in January, by acquiescing to a tax law that raised rates on high incomes.
Now they refuse to consider further revenue increases, and many want the sequestration cuts to take effect.
As the weekend arrived, Republicans were circulating a column by Woodward published online by the Washington Post on Friday, in which he wrote that Obama was "moving the goal posts" from what he had agreed to in the summer of 2011 by insisting that a sequestration substitute have tax increases as well as entitlement-spending reductions.
"What goal posts is Woodward referring to?" Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, wrote on Twitter late Friday. The White House, he added, "always wanted more revenue to avoid sequestration, not just cuts." He suggested later that Woodward was "willfully wrong."