Does the sequester start Friday morning or Friday night?

When things are this big, we tend to focus on things this small. But the question has come up because President Obama has scheduled a Friday meeting with the leaders of Congress discuss how to replace the sequester.

The law that sets up the sequester -- $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years -- says it begins on March 1. That’s Friday, and until now, that has been enough for everyone.

But that changed when Obama scheduled the meeting. Republicans pointed out that, by scheduling a meeting after the sequester was set to start, the president wasn't even trying to stop the spending cuts.

"If the president is serious about stopping the sequester, why did he schedule a meeting on Tuesday for Friday when the sequester hits at midnight on Thursday?” one top GOP congressional aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the meeting had not been officially announced. “Either someone needs to buy the White House a calendar, or this is just a - belated – farce.”

Many in Washington had assumed that the sequester, after all, started during the business day Friday. But on Wednesday, in a somewhat confusing exchange with reporters, White House press secretary Jay Carney insisted this wasn’t so. He said the sequester starts Friday at 11:59 p.m., which would mean that president is meeting with leaders before that happens. Here’s a lightly edited transcript.

QUESTION: Jay, can you just explain to the American public what might seem to them a bizarre scheduling sequence here? The meeting occurs after the sequester begins.

CARNEY: The sequester begins, I believe, midnight on the 1st of March. [Note: This would technically be 12:00 am Friday, the GOP position.]

QUESTION: Right, but it [the meeting] happens after.

CARNEY: Well, actually, it [the meeting] happens before, because it [the sequester] happens midnight.

QUESTION: The meeting happens after...

CARNEY: No. No, it begins midnight March 1st, so the meeting happens before.

QUESTION: It doesn't...

QUESTION: The bill says it happens at 12:01...Thursday

CARNEY: My understanding is it happens at midnight on Friday, 11:59.

QUESTION: It's very close, but it's not before.


Additional inquiries suggest that the sequester can start at any time on Friday. According to officials in both camps, the White House and Republicans agree Obama can decide at what time to direct the government to start the cuts. He just has to do it by 11:59 p.m.