Democrats want Congress to come back and stop ‘sequester’

February 20, 2013

This item has been updated since its original posting.

With nine days to go before $85 billion in automatic federal spending cuts begin, some Democrats are calling on Republican leaders to reconvene the House immediately and find a way to avert the spending reductions known as "sequester."

Both the House and Senate are on recess this week -- or what House leaders officially call a "District Work Period" -- because both chambers traditionally break during the week of the Presidents' Day holiday. The congressional schedule was set before lawmakers and the White House agreed on the March 1 sequester start date.


A view of the U.S. Capitol Building, March 25, 2012 in Washington, D.C. (Brendan Smialowski -- AFP/Getty Images)

 

Lacking control of the House, Democrats often call on Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) (who sets the House calendar) to cancel a recess and stay in Washington to work on legislation designed to bolster the economy. Senate Republicans, also lacking control of their chamber, also have called on Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to cancel Senate recesses.

So House Democrats tried again Wednesday, as Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) called sequester "an unnecessary self-inflicted wound on the United States economy."

"Congress should come back to Washington to fix the problem,” said Andrews, whose district is home to several government contracting firms.

Andrews wouldn't say where he was -- back home in New Jersey or at his desk in Washington -- but Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) made clear he's on Capitol Hill waiting for a solution. The apparent lack of concern among his GOP colleagues means "It's like the airplane is going down, and we’re taking a break to watch the in-flight movie," he said.

Cartwright's district includes a General Dynamics factory building parts for the U.S. military's Abrams tanks. During a recent visit to the factory, workers pressed him on why Congress isn't acting to avoid the cuts.

"The workers were stopping me -- members of the United Auto Workers -- were asking me, what’s going to happen with their jobs, and what are we doing about the sequester? And I was dumbfounded, because the House isn’t doing anything, we’re on vacation this week," he said.

Andrews, Cartwright and other House Democrats shared with reporters in a midday conference call some of the fears and adverse affects of the sequester they're hearing about back home.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the most senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said her suburban New York City district is home to several hospitals likely to see reductions in federal grants for medical research. Several hospital executives have approached her with concerns -- as have airplane travelers who use the three major New York-area airports.

"Air-traffic controllers will be laid off. This again will have devastating affects on the economy," she said. "Planes will be slowed down, fewer planes will be able to fly."

Both the National Institutes of Health and Federal Aviation Administration are expecting significant cuts if the sequester begins as scheduled. FAA officials and air-traffic controller union representatives have said furloughs or layoffs are likely.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), whose Tidewater-area district is home to federal agencies, military installations and dozens of major military contractors, said a local economist told him that the economic setbacks from sequester would rival the recession in 2008 and 2009.

"Being on recess during this is absurd," Scott said, adding later: "We should be at work. It’s going to be hard. If you want to have a substitute for a $1.2 trillion sequester, you have to come up with some alternative that’s not as bad as the sequester. … You can’t decide this in a one or two-day session. We need to be at work, we need to be working on a solution."

For his part, Boehner reiterated Wednesday that he also remains opposed to the budget cuts. In response to the Defense Department's tentative plans to furlough 800,000 civilian employees once sequestration begins, Boehner noted that the House has twice before passed plans to avert the sequester.

"Despite dire warnings from his own Secretary of Defense for more than a year that the sequester would ‘hollow out’ our military, the president has yet to put forward a specific plan that can pass his Democratic-controlled Senate, and has exerted no pressure on the Democratic leadership of the Senate to actually pass legislation to replace the sequester he proposed," Boehner said in a statement. "As the commander-in-chief, President Obama is ultimately responsible for our military readiness, so it’s fair to ask: what is he doing to stop his sequester that would ‘hollow out’ our Armed Forces?”

House Democrats can do little officially to present or pass plans to avert the sequester, but the caucus's Steering and Policy Committee plans to meet Thursday afternoon to discuss the potential affects of the budget cuts.

Follow Ed O'Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

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What does 'sequester' mean? (An Edsplainer)

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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