The sequester is set to kick in on Friday, leaving Congress little time to prevent across-the-board spending cuts that would start this week and last until they’ve saved up to $1.2 trillion over 10 years.
Democratic and Republican leaders are expected to introduce competing proposals this week that would replace the indiscriminate reductions, but neither side sees much chance of winning passage for their plans.
That means the sequester is almost certain to kick in on Friday.
Republicans have been working on a proposal that would preserve the cuts but give the administration more discretion over how to implement them. They may also produce a plan that would structure the defense reductions to have minimal impact on national security.
The Democratic plan would delay the sequester until January and replace the sequester with $110 billion in new tax revenue and a more narrow menu of spending cuts.
Administration officials have spent the past several weeks sounding alarms over how the reductions would impact everything from government services and national security to federal workers and the economy.
On Sunday, the White House released 51 fact sheets describing the effects a sequester would have on every state and the District of Columbia.
Republicans have questioned whether the nation would feel the cuts as much as the Obama administration suggests. They’re essentially gambling that the public outcry will be slight, giving them leverage to call for more spending reductions during the months ahead.
Democrats, on the other hand, know that a public backlash could bolster their cause to replace the sequester with increased tax revenue and more discriminate cuts. GOP leaders have said they won’t accept a proposal with new revenue after they already agreed to more taxes under the Jan. 1 deal to avert the fiscal cliff.
A White House budget official last week acknowledged that the impacts of the sequester will “get worse over time” but that “the pain points are there,” according to an article in Sunday’s Washington Post.
Democrats wouldn’t have much time for the public to grow weary of the cuts. Another big budget battle looms next month, with lawmakers required to approve a new spending plan before Congress’s last short-term funding measure expires on March 27.
Failure to pass a new budget — or at least another temporary plan — before that deadline would result in a government shutdown.
So far, the signs on that front are not looking great for Democrats, with the public paying little attention to the sequester. A Pew Research Center/USA Today poll released last week showed that just 27 percent of the people surveyed had heard “a lot” about the matter.
Nonetheless, another Pew Research/USA Today poll released last week said that 49 percent of survey respondents would blame congressional Republicans for failure to reach a deal to avoid the sequester, while 31 percent would blame President Obama.
That doesn’t bode well for GOP lawmakers if the majority of people start to feel serious pain from the cuts.
Members of both parties will surely spend the next few days playing the blame game, just as they did last week. Meanwhile, unions and agency management plan to begin negotiations over the terms of possible furloughs.
Many federal agencies — including the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security — have said they would have to resort to unpaid leave to meet their reduction targets, which were last estimated by the Congressional Budget Office at 5.3 percent for non-defense categories.
Unions cannot stop the furloughs, but they can try to provide employees with flexibility over when they take their days off, essentially softening the blow.
Furloughs would not begin until April, but agencies could start sending out notices at any time — even before the Friday sequester deadline.
Complicating matters is the fact that Congress can suddenly stop the cuts by forging an alternative deficit-reduction deal after the sequester takes effect.
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