That formidable task will be aided or complicated by the fact that the Bush tax cuts for middle- and upper-income households are also set to end Dec. 31.
The fog of war is probably clearer than the mystery of what President Obama or Mitt Romney would do before this year ends to head off the cuts required by the 2011 Budget Control Act.
One key player will be Obama, no matter the election outcome. Romney will be another, but only if he is president-elect. Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have so far maintained their basic uncompromising positions, though bipartisan groups of legislators have tried to find some common solutions.
Both candidates have said that they want to prevent sequestration, but neither has said how he would do so.
At Monday’s debate, Obama said flatly, “It will not happen,” without offering specifics.
Obama will have the upper hand if he’s reelected. He can use the end of the Bush tax cuts as leverage to force a deal with Republicans. That probably would see his desired return to the Clinton-era rates for incomes above $250,000, while making permanent the current rates for those earning less. Additional revenue could come from increasing rates for estate, dividend and capital gains taxes and closing tax loopholes while reducing some corporate rates.
Obama has said he could accept some cuts in domestic programs, and possibly a minimal amount in defense while agreeing to work out savings through Medicare reforms.
The problem will be more difficult should Romney win. Republicans, particularly in the House, have indicated that they want to put off any sequestration action for a year, at a minimum on the defense side, to give a Romney White House a chance to come up with a new plan for taxes and spending.
Obama, however, has said he would veto any such legislation. He also will have the power to let the Bush tax cuts lapse should he decide to veto any attempt by Congress to extend those tax cuts for the wealthy.
Romney has been silent on what he would do. But his speeches and policy statements promise sharply increased defense spending, a 20 percent reduction in personal income taxes at all levels, along with maintaining — if not reducing — rates on dividend and capital gains taxes for the middle class. He has claimed that capping tax deductions for the wealthy and closing loopholes along with reducing non-defense discretionary spending by 5 percent will solve the problem. Most budget analysts disagree.