Adding to the sense of inevitability is the belief that the cuts, known as the sequester, would improve the government’s bottom line without devastating the broader economy. Though the cuts would hamper economic growth, especially in the Washington region, the forecast is far less dire than with other recent fiscal deadlines, and financial markets are not pressing Washington to act.
Cuts to the military and the defense industry remain politically problematic. But Tuesday, even some of the Pentagon’s most fervent champions seemed resigned to the likelihood that the cuts would be permitted to kick in, at least temporarily.
“I think it’s more likely to happen. And I’m ashamed of the Congress, I’m ashamed of the president, and I’m ashamed of being in this body, quite frankly,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), an Air Force Reservist who has been working for months to develop a bipartisan plan to protect the Pentagon.
“How do you go to somebody in the military who’s been deployed four or five times . . . and say, ‘For your good work over the last decade, we’re going to ruin the military; we’re going to make it harder for you to have the equipment you need to fight, and we’re going to reduce benefits to your family?’ ” he said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) was only slightly more optimistic, saying there is a “real” threat that the sequester will strike in March. The odds, he said, are “probably even.”
As the deadline approaches, legions of corporate executives, nonprofit officials, mayors and governors are working the phones and trekking to Capitol Hill in hopes of securing a last-minute deal. Cuts to government contracts have already triggered layoffs, particularly in the defense industry. And agency officials are warning of mass furloughs of government workers that could delay medical research, leave national parks understaffed for the peak vacation season and otherwise disrupt federal operations.
“A lot of people on the Hill see the oncoming train,” said Marion Blakey, president and chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association, who led a delegation of chief executives to the Capitol on Tuesday. “We’re going to keep fighting this.”
Origins of the sequester
The sequester is a product of the 2011 fight over the national debt, when the new GOP House majority insisted on spending cuts equal in size to the increase in the federal debt limit. The result: spending caps that would force President Obama to slice $1 trillion from agency budgets over the next decade, along with $1.2 trillion in additional cuts that would hit automatically on Jan. 2, 2013, unless Congress agreed on a plan to replace them.