Republicans question Obama's commitment to avoiding mandatory spending cuts

A massive, mandatory, across-the-board spending cut known as the sequester is due to hit after the first of the year. But at the third and final presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla., President Obama dismissed worries that the government would automatically slash $1.2 trillion in spending on Jan. 2.

"That will not happen," Obama said.

That came as a surprise to Kevin Smith, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner.

"For the past year, the president has refused to show any leadership in resolving the sequester he proposed," Smith said. "Forgive me if I have doubts about his newfound desire to resolve the problem, in a presidential debate no less."

Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, was equally surprised.

"Well, that's certainly new," Stewart said. "I'm curious to see what his plan is for preventing it. While the House has passed legislation to prevent it, the White House has presented no plan."

Congress and the president agreed to the mandatory cuts in the summer of 2011 as part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling to avoid an unprecedented default. The so-called debt supercommittee, an elite group of bipartisan lawmakers from both sides, was supposed to determine how to find $1.2 trillion in acceptable spending cuts. But the supercommittee failed, leaving in place automatic cuts that would mean most federal agencies must automatically slash budgets by 8 to 9 percent.

A top Obama adviser, though, did not express the same confidence as the president when pressed after the debate on the claim the cuts "will not happen." Obama adviser David Plouffe repeatedly told reporters that everyone in Washington agrees the steep cuts "should not happen."

Pressed on the fact the president was firmer about it, Plouffe kept falling back on how it "should not happen."

Fox News' Ed Henry contributed to this report.