The White House Office of Management and Budget released a memo on Tuesday warning federal agencies that furloughs and steep cutbacks may be necessary if lawmakers fail to reach a comprehensive debt-reduction deal by March 1.

That’s right, the Obama administration used the “f” word, which means the government may force many of its employees to take time off work in order to reduce costs if sequestration happens.

The memo also told agencies to “identify the most appropriate means to reduce civilian workforce costs,” including with hiring freezes, by releasing temporary employees and through early retirement or voluntary separation incentives. In other words: Think hard about how to get rid of people.

Barack Obama, John BoehnerPresident Obama also held a press conference Tuesday calling on lawmakers to pass a small combination of spending cuts and tax changes to add a few more months to the sequestration deadline.

To review, the Obama administration told federal agencies to prepare for the worst effects of sequestration, but the president almost simultaneously pleaded for a(nother) temporary out — Congress and the president already approved an extension of the sequestration deadline as part of the fiscal-cliff deal that came together just hours into the new year.

That’s a hopeful approach, but not exactly optimistic.

The president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, William Dugan, applauded the OMB for communicating with federal workers as the government approaches the sequestration deadline. “That’s a good thing,” he told Federal Diary columnist Joe Davidson.

The American Federation of Government Employees issued a less positive message, saying in a statement Tuesday that the memo “missed the mark yet again.” The union said the OMB should have focused more on service-contractor cuts.

In fairness, the OMB memo mentioned that administration officials “are closely examining contracts, grants, and other forms of expenditures.”

But AFGE president J. David Cox had more-specific ideas in mind, namely “a freeze on new service contracts, freezing the exercise of contract options and freezing approval of contract modifications,” as he said in the union response.

Likewise, National Treasury Employees Union president Colleen M. Kelley said she is “asking agencies to first examine government contracts and look to make cuts in those programs, as well as other cost-cutting measures that can be taken before considering furloughs,” according to Davidson.

Avoiding sequestration will be tough with Republicans and Democrats disagreeing over whether a comprehensive debt-reduction package should include tax hikes. GOP lawmakers appear increasingly content to pocket the savings and move on to other battles, according to a Washington Post report.

“There is a better way to reduce the deficit, but Americans do not support sacrificing real spending cuts for more tax hikes,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement.

The president, for his part, signaled on Tuesday that he’s not ready to give up on a deal just yet, especially in light of the fragile state of the economy. During his news conference, he warned Congress against the “self-inflicted wounds” of automatic cuts to defense and discretionary spending.

“Congress is already working towards a budget that would permanently replace the sequester,” Obama said. “At the very least, we should give them the chance to come up with this budget instead of making indiscriminate cuts now that will cost us jobs and significantly slow down our recovery.”

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