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Cantor urges Obama to work with GOP on 'smarter cuts'

Published at 10:40 am ET:  House Majority Leader Eric Cantor urged Congress and President Barack Obama to agree on “smarter cuts” instead of the $85 billion in spending reductions that are set to begin March 1.

On NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday, the Virginia Republican said the $85 billion in spending reductions in the current fiscal year, called “the sequester” and mandated by the Budget Control Act which Obama signed into law in 2011, are “not the best way to go about trying to control spending.”

Cantor told NBC’s David Gregory that House Republicans have proposed alternatives – such as reducing the value of federal employee pension benefits – that would help avert the automatic spending cuts.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor visits Meet the Press to break down the top issues facing Capitol Hill lawmakers.

Cantor pinned the responsibility for suggesting the automatic cuts on Obama: “He’s the one who proposed the sequester in the first place.” Republicans, he said, are “anxiously waiting” for the president to begin discussing alternative cuts with GOP congressional leaders.

But Cantor said, “Every time you turn around,” Obama’s proposal is to raise taxes again. “He just got his tax hike on the wealthy and you can’t in this town every three months raise taxes,” the GOP leader said.

Obama and Democratic congressional leaders are seeking to raise additional tax revenue by eliminating or curbing some tax preferences and deductions. This would mean a new tax hike on top of the $700 billion increase signed by Obama on Jan. 2. That law, the American Taxpayer Relief Act, increased the top income tax rate on single earners with incomes above $400,000 and on married couples filing a joint return with incomes above $450,000.

It also reduced exemptions and deductions for single people who earn more than $250,000 and married couples filing a joint return who make more than $300,000. This effectively increased their tax bill.

Obama and most members of Congress didn’t expect or intend that the automatic spending cuts would go into effect; instead they thought they’d serve as a fail-safe device to spur agreement on a “grand bargain” of entitlement reforms, spending reductions and tax increases. When the “super committee” of 12 members of Congress failed to achieve that bargain, the automatic spending cuts were left as the default policy.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin visits Meet the Press to back the president's proposal for an economic compromise.

Senate Majority Whip Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said, “Sequestration was designed as a budget threat, not as a budget strategy.” He added, “It was supposed to be so awful that the super-committee would finally reach a bipartisan agreement.” He blamed Republicans on that panel for rejecting tax increases as part of an agreement.

As a way of raising more revenue, Durbin said, Democrats want to eliminate or curb some tax preferences, a strategy which “doesn’t really impose a tax burden on middle-class families.”

In an interview Sunday on Fox News, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi argued that cutting spending on education and scientific research is harmful -- “and they are what are affected by the sequestration. So it is almost a false argument to say we have a spending problem. We have a budget deficit problem that we have to address.”

She said federal spending on education and research will produce more jobs – and that will mean more revenue flowing into the Treasury. “Nothing brings more money to the Treasury of the United States than investment in education of the American people,” the California Democrat said, arguing that Congress must choose “(spending) cuts that help us” and not allow “cuts that hurt our future.”

On immigration policy, Durbin hailed Cantor for changing his mind on allowing younger illegal immigrants or people brought into the United States by their parents when they were very young to become legal permanent residents and ultimately U.S. citizens.

Cantor said, “I thought the best place to start was with children. These are children who due to no fault of their own were brought here.”  He mentioned his own immigrant grandparents who emigrated to flee the anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia.

When Gregory asked Cantor whether he could bring with him a lot of conservative Republicans in the House to support an overhaul of immigration laws, Cantor said, “There’s a lot of movement right now in the House and the Senate, both sides of the aisle, with folks having a lot of different ideas.”

But Cantor clearly indicated that he would like Congress to pass a bill focused only on illegal immigrant children and “put a win on the board,” before addressing other, more complex aspects of immigration policy.

Yet Durbin said a legalization program for children or for people under age 21 would be only part of a larger immigration bill, and that a group of Democratic and Republican senators including Sen. Marco Rubio, R- Fla., is crafting that larger measure. “But it won’t just apply to children,” Durbin said. 

On another contentious policy dispute – Obama’s targeted killing policy for terrorists, even if they happen to be U.S. citizens – Durbin said Obama is working toward “a legal architecture to deal with this new war on terrorism” and “the new mode of war,” which includes not only drones as weapons, but computer-based or cyber warfare. “The policy is unfolding,” Durbin said, he did not say whether he thought a revised or new congressional authorization to use force was necessary.

Obama and the Justice Department have argued that the targeted killings of suspected terrorists in Yemen and elsewhere are fully authorization by the resolution Congress passed a few days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That congressional resolution, plus the president’s inherent authority as commander-in-chief to defend the nation from imminent attack, supply his constitutional basis for action, the Justice Department argued in a white paper reported Monday by NBC News.