White House warns sequester would disrupt life of nation

The White House warned Friday that allowing the $85 billion sequester to happen would devastate the economy and disrupt the everyday lives of millions of people.

In a move intended to intensify pressure on Congress to prevent looming spending cuts set for March 1, White House officials told reporters the cuts would hamper law enforcement, hurt federal education programs, withhold mental health services and furlough thousands of workers.

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The officials also said there would be nothing they could do to soften the pain if the sequester happens.

“The blunt, irresponsible nature of sequestration means we can't plan our way out of sequestration or take steps to soften their blow,” Danny Werfel, federal controller of the Office of Management and Budget, told reporters. “These large and arbitrary cuts will have severe impacts across the government."

President Obama hammered the point home at a farewell ceremony for outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta later Friday afternoon, saying there was "no reason for that to happen."

"Now is the time for Democrats and Republicans to come together....solving problems to do right for the country and not for any particular agenda," Obama said.

At a press briefing earlier in the day, Werfel warned of sweeping cutbacks to the paychecks of federal workers and contractors.

“There's no way to implement the sequester without significant furlough of hundreds of thousands of [federal] employees,” he said.

But the administration also said there would be dire consequences for the nation in general.

In a fact sheet, the administration said some 373,000 “seriously mentally ill adults” and “emotionally disturbed children” would go untreated because of cuts in health care spending. Thousands of fewer food safety inspections would occur, and the FBI would see a workforce reduction of some 1,000 agents.

Social safety net programs for the poor would be among the hardest hit by the sequester. More than half a million women and children would be dropped from food assistance programs, and 125,000 low-income families receiving rental assistance would lose their aid. Recipients of long-term unemployment would see benefits decrease by an average of $400, and more than 100,000 formerly homeless people would be removed from their current housing and emergency shelter programs.

Programs for seniors — including federally-assisted programs like Meals on Wheels and offices that process Social Security and Medicare claims — could see stark cutbacks. And while most Americans are unlikely to mourn the cuts to the Internal Revenue Service that would reduce the number of audits performed, the Justice Department would furlough hundreds of federal prosecutors responsible for trying criminal crimes.

Research and education programs would also see significant reductions. Head Start services would be eliminated for approximately 70,000 children, and federal support for more than 17,000 teachers — including 7,200 special-education teachers — would be cut. The government would issue fewer research grants for health advancements, and drugs would take longer to be approved.

The White House has repeatedly argued the cuts should be avoided, but had not previously offered specific details on what it sees as the negative effects.

With just weeks to go before the cuts begin, the administration seems inclined to build up public pressure on Congress to prevent the cuts, particularly with some lawmakers becoming resigned to their implementation. After next week’s work, Congress is scheduled to recess for a week and will return with only four days to go before the cuts happen.

President Obama and Congress seem far apart from a deal, and neither side has offered a new plan to replace the cuts scheduled for this year.

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said Republicans are familiar with the consequences of the sequester, and faulted Obama for not offering his own plan to prevent them.

“We know the president’s sequester will have consequences. What we don’t know is when the president will propose a plan to replace the sequester with smarter spending cuts and reforms," he said.

Obama this week called on Congress to replace the cuts with a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts, but Republicans in Congress say they will accept no new tax hikes, particularly after a "fiscal cliff" deal in January that raised taxes.

Republicans argue they approved a sequester replacement bill in the last Congress, and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), while decrying the sequester, this week said it would be better for it to take effect than to introduce more tax hikes to replace it.

"The president is out of excuses," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner. "We're glad they're laying out the devastating consequences of the president’s sequester, but the question remains: what are they willing to do to prevent it?"

Republican press aides on Capitol Hill used social media in an attempt to pin blame for the looming cuts on President Obama, switching their Facebook and Twitter avatars to a passage from Bob Woodward's book that reports the sequester was first proposed by the White House. 

Pressed about whether the president would veto a deal from Congress that contained only spending cuts, White House press secretary Jay Carney would not explicitly issue one, but stressed getting a balance was "essential."

He also accused Republican leaders of "amnesia" on Twitter, pointing out that GOP leaders including Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Ca

Individual agencies and departments are in the midst of planning how they would implement their sequester cuts, and the extent to which programs and employees would be affected.

It's likely that furloughs would not be implemented immediately — Werfel said that under the law, workers would be entitled a 30-day notice — but the White House described cutbacks as an inevitability if the sequestration went into effect.

The White House also argued that sequestration would lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of federal and contracting jobs and deal a blow to the overall economy, pointing to recent fourth-quarter gross domestic product projections — dragged down by a slowing of defense spending — as evidence of the danger.

—This story was posted at 1:22 p.m. and updated at 2:03 p.m.