The White House has asked federal agencies to propose ways to cut spending by 10 percent or more for the upcoming budget, underscoring the political jockeying under way as President Obama and Congress prepare for a fiery autumn clash over the economy and the debt.
In a letter released Thursday, White House budget chief Jacob Lew told agency heads to submit financial blueprints with spending for the 2013 budget at least 5 percent below this year's levels. He also asked them to present additional proposals that would trim spending by a total of at least 10 percent that year.
The White House has asked agencies in years past to propose similar savings. But Lew's letter comes just two weeks after Obama and congressional Republicans ended an epic debt ceiling battle that has left both sides eager to demonstrate a willingness to trim red ink, just as the 2012 presidential and congressional elections approach.
More narrowly, Lew's request for two sets of potential savings is aimed at living within the debt ceiling agreement the White House and Republicans worked out after a lengthy battle that consumed much of the spring and summer and drove the government to the brink of a potential default. Their deal created a series of spending targets and would save tens of billions of dollars a year.
"By providing budgets pegged to these two scenarios, you will provide the president with the information to make the tough choices necessary to meet the hard spending targets in place and the needs of the nation," Lew wrote.
A spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said Lew's letter was a reasonable way to start addressing the agreed-upon spending limits.
"But the White House must get serious about real structural reform of our entitlement programs if we're going to get our debt under control to help our economy grow and create jobs," said the spokesman, Michael Steel, referring to huge and fast growing benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare that help drive annual deficits skyward.
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 625,000 federal workers and employees of the District of Columbia, heatedly criticized Lew's request.
In a written statement, national president John Gage said the cuts "mean just one thing: more job destruction in the midst of a jobs crisis."
When Congress returns from its summer recess in September, also generating political heat will be the special bipartisan panel of 12 lawmakers that the debt ceiling agreement created to try to craft a compromise $1.5 trillion, 10-year debt reduction package.