Dems, experts warn of economic and social fallout of sequester

House Democrats on Thursday recruited experts in the defense, education and healthcare sectors to press their case for preventing the sequester cuts scheduled to hit next week.

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At a gathering of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee on Capitol Hill, the lawmakers heard from a variety of voices warning that the automatic cuts would not only kill jobs, but also devastate low-income families that benefit from education, public health and other federally funded programs.

The event was designed to put a face on the obtuse issue of deficit reduction and to pressure GOP leaders to cut short their recess and vote on legislation preventing the sequester cuts from taking effect March 1.

"My students live in poverty and have special needs that federal funding helps," said Megan Allen, an elementary school teacher in Tampa, Fla., and Florida's 2010 Teacher of the Year. "The looming cuts threaten all of this."

Mary Selecky, secretary of the Washington state Department of Health, said the poorest and sickest people in the state would also be the hardest hit by the blunt cuts.

"This is really about negative health outcomes," she said.

And Marion Blakey, head of the Aerospace Industries Association, piled on, warning that the cuts would cause "great, and in some cases, very permanent harm" to both the economy and national security.

The hearing — a one-sided affair in which no Republicans participated — is the latest salvo in the increasingly bitter partisan battle over who should be blamed if the sequester cuts take effect, which seems ever more likely with each passing day.

Although President Obama has used his bully pulpit this week to travel around the country warning of the sequester's harmful effects, GOP leaders in both the House and Senate say they're willing to let those cuts take hold rather than accept Democratic demands that tax hikes be a part of an alternative deficit-reduction package.

They are gambling that Obama and the Democrats will bear the blame for the estimated hundreds of thousands of jobs that would be lost if the $85 billion cut takes effect.

"The revenue debate is now closed,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement this week.

Obama on Thursday called both Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to try to break the impasse, but if the reaction from Boehner's office was any indication, the gesture had little effect.

"If he wants to avert the sequester, shouldn’t the President be focused on the House of Congress that HASN’T acted, and where his own political party holds the majority?" Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in an email.

Boehner and the Republicans have repeatedly pointed to two bills they passed through the House last year that would have averted the sequester's defense cuts, largely by cutting deeper into other domestic programs. However, those bills expired with the end of the 112th Congress, and GOP leaders have not brought them up again this year, which hasn't been overlooked by Democrats.

"Since the new Congress began, they have not put forward one proposal to prevent the across-the-board sequester," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said during the Steering Committee gathering Thursday.

With public opinion polling in their favor, Democrats feel they have the upper hand. Still, they're also hamstrung to move on their own because Republicans control the House, and proposals that raise revenue must originate in the lower chamber.

That's left Democratic leaders with few options outside of attacking Republicans for inaction and hoping public pressure forces GOP leaders to rethink their strategy.

"Eight days from now a tremor will hit the American economy that is both unwelcome and unnecessary," Rep. Robert Andrews (N.J.), who heads the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, said Thursday. "This is a self-inflicted crisis that should end today."