WASHINGTON — Shunning the partisan rancor surrounding the nation's latest budget battle, President Barack Obama on Monday praised Tennessee's top Republican as a model for a stubborn Congress.
Hosting the nation's governors at the White House, Obama singled out Gov. Bill Haslam as a flexible leader House and Senate Republicans should imitate. The mention came right after the president slammed fiscal hawks for refusing to bend on $85 billion in across-the-board budget cuts scheduled to begin Friday.
Nine congressional Republicans call Tennessee home and consider Haslam an important political ally. But unlike them, Obama hinted, governors know "compromise is essential to getting things done."
"That's how Governor Haslam balanced his budget last year in Tennessee while still investing in key areas like education for Tennessee's kids," Obama said. "Like the rest of us, [he knows] we can't just cut our way to prosperity. Cutting alone is not an economic policy."
Called "sequestration," the automatic cuts comprise part of a 2011 deficit reduction bill. They were designed as an incentive for Congress to find a reasonable path toward eliminating $1.5 trillion over the next decade. Lawmakers failed, and the sequester could trigger as early as Friday.
Haslam was unable to respond to Obama's compliment as planned. He was scheduled to present the Republican reaction after the president's speech, but a "family health situation" prematurely brought Haslam home to Tennessee, according to spokesman Dave Smith.
In a statement, Smith hinted the governor doesn't mind how the president views him.
"The governor's style is to build consensus, and he's done that during his time in office" Smith said, mentioning the governor's efforts on teacher tenure and civil service reform.
Democrats support a mixed approach to avoiding sequestration. Obama's deficit reduction plan includes $1.5 trillion in spending cuts and new revenue from closing various tax loopholes.
Many Republicans have a two-word solution: Spending cuts.
Barring a compromise, Tennessee this year faces $73.4 million in reductions to federal initiatives, including public health programs, defense operations, education grants and federal personnel, White House figures show. Georgia and Alabama face $485 million and $302 million, respectively.
RESPONDING TO THE PRESIDENT
Haslam's spokesman criticized the sequester, indicating difficult times ahead for Tennessee.
"When it comes to sequestration, he would like the federal government to approach it like we do in Tennessee when we put our budget together," Smith said. "Instead of across the board cuts, we analyze our programs and services. We make strategic reductions to live within our means while providing the services Tennessee taxpayers expect in a customer-focused way."
That goes against various Tennessee Republicans who voted for the legislation that led to sequester; Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker supported the Budget Control Act of 2011, while U.S. Reps. Jimmy Duncan, of Knoxville; Phil Roe, of Johnson City; and others endorsed it in the House.
U.S. Reps. Chuck Fleischmann, an Ooltewah Republican, and Scott DesJarlais, a Jasper Republican, voted against the legislation because they said it didn't cut enough government services.
Last week, Corker described sequestration as "ham-handed" but said he wouldn't mind missing Friday's deadline so America returns to a better fiscal path.
"We should let it happen," he told the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.
AN EARLY FLIGHT HOME
Following the White House meeting, Haslam was to appear at a news conference organized by the Republican Governors Assocation. Also tapped were three Republicans with national ambition: Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
Haslam's appearance was announced days after the widely read website Politico called him "the GOP star you've never heard of." But the governor missed the news conference because of a "nonpublic family member's" illness, Smith said.
The implication: Haslam's wife, father and brother remain well.
Crissy Haslam is Tennessee's first lady. James Haslam II, Haslam's father, founded Pilot Flying J, the hugely successful truck stop and travel center company that made the family name famous. The governor's brother, Jimmy Haslam, currently operates Pilot and owns the Cleveland Browns.