WASHINGTON, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama said Saturday the nation's top priority should be economic growth and job creation, but Congress is set to "do the exact opposite."
In his weekly radio and Internet address, the president said across-the-board federal spending cuts scheduled to take effect March 1 can be avoided, but Congressional Republicans "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."
"Congress can turn them off anytime with just a little compromise," he said. "They can pass a balanced plan for deficit reduction. They can cut spending in a smart way, and close wasteful tax loopholes for the well-off and well-connected."
Obama said the United States "should be doing everything we can to grow our economy and create good, middle class jobs."
"And yet, less than one week from now, Congress is poised to allow a series of arbitrary, automatic budget cuts that will do the exact opposite," the president said. "They will slow our economy. They will eliminate good jobs. They will leave many families who are already stretched to the limit scrambling to figure out what to do."
Obama said allowing spending cuts to proceed will result in the layoffs of "thousands of teachers and educators" and jeopardize security and traffic control at airports.
"Already, the threat of these cuts has forced the Navy to delay the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf -- affecting our ability to respond to threats in an unstable part of the world," the president said. "And just this week, the Pentagon announced that if these cuts go through, almost 800,000 defense employees -- the equivalent of every person in Miami and Cleveland combined -- will be forced to take unpaid leave."
Obama said his proposal for debt reduction "requires Democrats and Republicans to meet halfway" and said he is "hopeful" congressional Republicans will change their mind about allowing the cuts to proceed.
"I believe we should work together to build on the more than $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction we've already achieved," he said. "But I believe we should do it in a balanced way -- with smart spending cuts, entitlement reform and tax reform."
GOP: Obama's higher taxes to ruin economy
WASHINGTON, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- President Obama's insistence on higher taxes is threatening to put the U.S. economy in a tailspin, a Republican senator charged Saturday.
Delivering the GOP's weekly media address, Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota spoke less than a week before mandatory across-the-board cuts for all federal agencies are set to begin.
Hoeven said congressional Republicans were ready to "provide the flexibility" to make the needed spending cuts and avoid sequestration, The Hill reported.
Republicans in the House have passed two bills that would avoid the sequester, he said. However, the president has refused to agree to the House proposals "because he wants higher taxes."
Creating jobs and expanding the tax base, not higher taxes and spending controls, were the right way to deal with the deficit, Hoeven said, but he said Obama was blocking economic growth with "more regulation, red tape, and bureaucracy."
The former North Dakota governor also slammed the president for failing to approve the Keystone XL pipeline that would bring 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil a day from Canada to refineries in the southern United States, as well as 100,000 barrels a day from Montana and North Dakota.
Syrian opposition pulls out of talks
DOHA, Qatar, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- The opposition Syrian National Coalition has pulled out of international talks on ending the Syrian conflict, blasting "international silence" on the violence.
It particularly pointed a finger at Russia for supplying weapons to the Syrian regime, the BBC reported Saturday.
SNC leader Moaz al-Khatib said three weeks ago he would meet with representatives of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The change of heart means al-Khatib will not attend next month's meeting of the Friends of Syria in Rome and that the SNC will turn down invitations for talks in Washington and Moscow.
In a statement, the SNC said, "The international silence on the crimes committed every day against our people amounts to participating in two years of killings, The Russian leadership especially bears moral and political responsibility for supplying the regime with weapons."
Scud missiles supplied by Russia were "systematically" destroying Aleppo and "hundreds of civilians" have been killed, the statement added.
Cardinal: Reconsider clerical celibacy
EDINBURGH, Scotland, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- Cardinal Keith O'Brien, head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, said Friday priests should not be bound by a vow of celibacy.
In an interview with BBC Scotland, O'Brien, the most senior Catholic cleric in Britain, pointed out priests were allowed to marry for centuries. The church also has allowed married Anglican and Lutheran priests who converted to become Catholic priests.
O'Brien will be among the cardinals who gather in Rome to choose a successor to Pope Benedict XVI. Benedict leaves office next week, the first pope to retire in 600 years.
In the interview, O'Brien said he does not believe every issue is up for grabs. He described the church's ban on abortion and euthanasia as being "of divine origin."
But he said other church practices do not have biblical roots.
"For example the celibacy of the clergy, whether priests should marry -- Jesus didn't say that," he said. "There was a time when priests got married, and of course we know at the present time in some branches of the church -- in some branches of the Catholic church -- priests can get married, so that is obviously not of divine of origin and it could get discussed again."
O'Brien said he would be willing to vote for a pope from outside Europe. Possible candidates have been suggested from Africa and South America.