Instead of negotiating, party leaders were busy issuing ultimatums and casting blame. Before they left, Senate Democrats unveiled a bill to replace the sequester in part with new taxes on millionaires, which Republicans oppose. And House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) vowed “the sequester will be in effect until there are cuts and reforms that put us on a path to balance the budget in the next 10 years,” an idea Democrats oppose.
Behind the scenes, there was real concern that the cuts eventually would disrupt critical government functions, hamper economic growth and destroy 750,000 jobs. But for now, the sequester is amorphous and slow-moving, and it has emerged as a convenient hill on which to plant a flag and fight the next battle in the ongoing partisan conflict over taxes and spending.
Even as Boehner refused to draft legislation to avert the sequester, he was looking for ways to avoid a government shutdown at the end of next month, an event that would have more immediate and spectacular consequences.
In a meeting Thursday with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), Boehner suggested quick action to fund the government through the rest of this year, according to people in both parties. The current funding bill runs out March 27.
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel declined to comment, saying House leaders have not decided how to proceed. But an agreement to keep the government open would let everyone breathe a sigh of relief until August, when the next serious deadline — another increase in the federal debt limit — will once again loom.
In the meantime, lawmakers began bracing for the sequester to creep ever so slowly into people’s lives. This week, a host of Cabinet secretaries wrote letters and trooped to Capitol Hill hearings to warn that the impact will indeed be calamitous.
Furloughed inspectors will force meat and poultry plants to shut down nationwide. Wait times will soar at airport security and border crossings. Rent checks will be cut off to 10,000 elderly or disabled people and single mothers. And the FBI warned it will be less able to “penetrate and disrupt terrorist plans . . . prior to an attack.”
None of it, however, would happen right away. At a hearing Thursday, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) begged a panel of top officials to give her more urgency and drama.
“Here we are, March 1st. It is now midnight. The clock has moved,” Mikulski intoned with a husky Baltimore accent. “Can’t you paint for me the picture of how sequester is triggered? Do all the lights go out in federal buildings?”