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Sequester warnings are piling up

Defense department officials prepare for testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the impacts of sequestration. (Allison Shelley/Getty)

Congressional leaders remain far from a deal to avoid the deep automatic spending cuts set for March 1, but the consequences of the so-called sequester are becoming increasingly clear with a growing number of agencies issuing warnings about the potential impacts.

Napolitano said in a letter to Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), who is ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, that her agency could not absorb the cuts without “significantly negatively affecting frontline operations and our nation’s previous investment in the homeland security enterprise.”

The secretary is scheduled to testify before the House committee on Thursday.

The union that represents U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel responded to Napolitano’s letter on Wednesday with a statement calling on Congress to “immediately put an end to this destructive policy.”

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen M. Kelley said in the statement that the cuts for Homeland Security would “have a ripple effect throughout the government, since Customs and Border Protection is the second-largest generator of federal revenue, behind only the Internal Revenue Service.”

The NTEU president said furloughs for Department of Homeland Security personnel would increase wait times at ports of entry by nearly two hours, ultimately affecting the national economy. She pointed to a 2008 Commerce Department report that said border delays at that point were expected to cost the economy $86 billion by 2017 in the form of lost jobs, wages, economic output and tax revenue.

Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee released an assessment of the sequester on Wednesday, saying the reductions would impact everything from military readiness and international affairs to schools and the economy.

The committee estimated that the required budget slashing could cut economic growth in half for 2013, trim medical-research funding by $1.6 billion, reduce education funding for at-risk students by $750 million and erase $168 million in funding to protect diplomatic personnel.

The White House released similar estimates on the “most damaging effects” of a sequester. In it’s “fact sheet,” the administration blamed congressional Republicans for the impasse blocking an alternative deficit-reduction deal, saying many within the party have not compromised on ending special tax benefits for the wealthy.

The GOP leadership continued its opposition to tax increases after President Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in the Republican rebuttal: “The idea that more taxes and more government spending is the best way to help hardworking middle-class taxpayers — that’s an old idea that’s failed every time it’s been tried.”

On Tuesday, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said sequestration would pose a dire threat to national defense at a dangerous time. “The wolf is at the door,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee, noting that the automatic cuts would eliminate $46 billion from the Pentagon budget over the next seven months and require furloughs for the defense civilian workforce.

Carter added on Wednesday that about 40 percent of the approximately 800,000 Department of Defense employees facing furloughs are veterans.

Already, the Pentagon has taken steps to trim spending in preparation for the possible sequester, including implementing a hiring freeze and slashing operating costs on military bases.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno said Tuesday: “I began my career in a hollow army. I don’t want to end my career in a hollow army.”

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