Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) -Jose Luis Magana/AP Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) -Jose Luis Magana/AP

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) on Friday asked workers at the National Institutes of Health to help “put a face” on the the deep automatic spending cuts known as sequestration that will kick in if Congress doesn’t agree to a deficit-reduction plan by March 1.

“The reason the public workforce is under attack is because it’s an attack on government,” Cardin told a packed auditorium during his first of several town hall meetings at federal facilities in coming weeks. “It’s not an attack on what you do, so go out there and say what you do.”

“You’re real people,” the senator added. “You have real lives. You’ve got families, and you’re on the front lines of public service … don’t be afraid to point that out.”

(C-SPAN has posted video of the full town hall meeting.)

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle appear increasingly willing to accept sequestration — at least temporarily  — as they try to work toward agreements on a long-term budget and other pressing matters such as immigration and gun control.

Speaking to reporters Friday, Cardin expressed little hope that Congress would reach a deal before March 1 to avoid the automatic cuts, although he noted that “there is some talk about a short-term solution, and there is some belief that there is bipartisan interest in a short-term solution.”

Last week, President Obama called on Congress to pass a package of modest spending cuts and tax changes to delay the start of the sequester, although he didn’t propose any specific measures.

Congress and the president already approved a brief extension of the sequestration deadline just hours into the new year as part of a deal to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

Cardin said on Friday that the cuts would “cause significant damage to our national security readiness, to our commitment to provide essential services to the people of this country and to our economy.”

Cardin’s comments reflected similar warnings from the Obama administration on Friday. Danny Werfel, federal controller of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said Friday during a news briefing that “there is no way to implement the sequester without significant furloughs of hundreds of thousands of federal employees.”

Furloughs would entail unpaid leave days for federal workers, with the amount of time varying among agencies.

As for the NIH, Werfel said the institute would have to “significantly cut back or delay thousands of research grants and awards, setting back progress on research into life-threatening illnesses and costing tens of thousands of jobs for scientists and students.”

The White House also released a “fact sheet” Friday listing examples of the impacts involved in a potential sequester.

Despite the warnings of possible doom and gloom from politicians and the White House, the administration has offered little in the way of a detailed blueprint for cuts if the March 1 deadline passes without a deal. Individual workers are largely still guessing about just how hard they might be hit.

“I would hope the agencies have already taken some steps to alert the workforce,” Cardin said. “It’s difficult to tell the workforce exactly what’s going to happen until we have a better understanding of whether we’re going to hit [the deadline] and then the plans to mitigate it.”

One e-mail question during the town hall asked the senator whether anyone had quantified the cost of debating, reviewing and implementing contingency plans for sequestration. (Lisa Rein explored this issue in a recent article for The Washington Post).

“The savings from that wasted time alone might pay for some of the cuts,” the questioner said.

Cardin responded with sympathy, saying, “It’s way past time for Congress to give you a definitive answer.”

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