Congress seems resigned to sequestration

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) speaks to reporters outside the White House.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) speaks to reporters outside the White House. (PETE MAROVICH /Bloomberg News)
Posted: March 05, 2013

WASHINGTON - The week of the sequester began with breathless warnings of its devastating effects. It ended with a collective shrug.

As the latest Washington budget deadline arrived Friday, Democrats and Republicans weary from months of fiscal brinkmanship accepted the fact that the $85 billion in automatic budget cuts will take effect for the near future, at least. Rather than patching together another last-minute deal, they turned to debating whether the reductions amounted to a manageable resizing of government or a bludgeon that would soon have voters demanding an alternative.

Republicans were happy to see the cuts, even if they wished the paring could have been more targeted.

"Many members are comfortable with the sole fact there's some reduction in spending," said Rep. Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.).

Democrats argued that as the impact of the cuts builds over weeks or months, public pressure will mount on Republicans to make a deal that includes new taxes to help offset some of the worst damage.

"This is a Washington problem now," said Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.). "It's going to become a reality problem. . . . It's going to be a slowly unfolding problem, but it will unfold."

The cuts that began Friday are just a start: Over 10 years, $1.2 trillion is slated to be cut due to the sequester.

But despite lingering disagreement over those cuts, President Obama and congressional leaders signaled Friday that the fiscal flash points that have become so familiar would be put to rest, at least for now. While some Democrats had hoped another budget deadline, March 27, might offer a chance to revisit the cuts, Obama made clear he won't seek another showdown. Instead, he sounded ready to accept a six-month budget plan that keeps the government running through September and includes the sequester as a new reality.

In his Saturday radio address, the president said he still hoped to eliminate the cuts through compromise. He said some Republicans were willing to close tax loopholes and some Democrats were ready for entitlement reform - "a caucus of common sense," he called it. "And I'm going to keep reaching out to them to fix this for good."

To be sure, the cuts are expected to remain a subject of debate - but not necessarily cause for another standoff. Democrats who control the White House and Senate and Republicans who control the House will continue to wrestle over the proper balance of tax increases and spending cuts, but they are expected to do so through normal long-term budget-making, rather than by seat-of-the-pants crisis aversion.

The latter method, spurred by a divided government dealing with limited resources as a result of a recession, was "just a formula for chaos," said Michael Federici, a political science professor at Mercyhurst University in Erie.

Each budget showdown, he said, led to last-minute deals that didn't fix long-term problems and set up another engineered crisis.

The 2011 standoff over raising the debt ceiling begat "the sequester," the automatic budget cuts designed to be so unpalatable that they would force lawmakers to come up with a better alternative. Except they didn't - and that begat January's fiscal cliff of tax hikes and cuts. A last-gasp cliff deal delayed the sequester by two months.

The cliff, with its catchy name and threat of swift tax hikes, prompted lawmakers to put off champagne toasts and grind out a deal over New Year's Eve. But there was no similar rush last week to undo the sequester - an abstract deal both parties had agreed to and then relentlessly blamed each other for.

The House wrapped up its work by lunchtime Thursday, voting on the Violence Against Women Act. The Senate took up two sequester fixes - one Democratic, one Republican - that both parties knew couldn't pass. The measures failed, and lawmakers slumped toward the exits.

"In the words of Chairman Mao," Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) quipped afterward, "it's always darkest before it's totally black."

The website BuzzFeed mocked the sequester's tortured history with TV and movie clips of people slapping one another.

Now that the slapping has subsided, the cuts begin - to domestic and defense programs alike, with limited discretion to decide what is slashed and what isn't.

Obama began the process Friday, and while it's still not clear how fast the cuts will roll out or exactly how they'll be implemented, they will eventually eat into resources. Head Start, the early-childhood education program for low-income children, will almost surely be hit. Long-term unemployment checks are scheduled to shrink by as much as 10 percent. Starting this spring, 37,000 civilian defense workers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey could face up to 22 unpaid furlough days. Defense contracts could be trimmed.

Uniformed military personnel, Social Security, and Medicare are exempt, somewhat easing the impact - but leaving cuts to fall heavily on other areas.

Obama has argued that the cuts should be replaced with more measured trims, and new revenue raised by closing tax loopholes that benefit the rich. A cuts-only approach, in his view, will hurt the middle class while sparing the wealthy.

Republicans in Congress said they were finished with tax hikes after agreeing to increases in the fiscal-cliff fight. It's up to Obama "to fulfill his commitment to a balanced process by now looking at the spending cuts," Gerlach said, adding that the GOP's next spending plan may offer some flexibility in managing the reductions.

But Democrats contend the size of the cuts will have a ripple effect that leads to calls to ease them.

Furloughed workers will skip Sunday breakfast at the local diner, Andrews said. Defense companies will cut catering contracts. Lawmakers with military bases in their districts will see local economies damaged.

"When that sinks in," Andrews said, "there will be political consequences."

On Friday, New Jersey Democrats gathered at Newark Liberty International Airport to decry the potential delays that may come from furloughs there.

The competing visions are likely to play out in long-term budget plans expected from each party in the coming weeks.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that without sequestration, 750,000 more jobs would be created or retained by the fourth quarter.

But the cuts will be uneven - some communities will feel them acutely, others not at all - and if they are easily absorbed, it could convince voters that they can get along with less government, said Federici, the Mercyhurst professor.

"If by chance the economy really improved," he said, "people will begin to say, 'Maybe we can do with a smaller government.' "


Contact Jonathan Tamari at jtamari@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari. Read his blog, "Capitol Inq," at www.philly.com/CapitolInq.

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