Sequester cuts are here to stay

The sequester is here to stay — at least for a while.

Lawmakers and aides say they do not expect Congress to turn off budget sequestration before April and that negotiations to freeze the automatic spending cuts could drag into May or beyond. 

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Over the last few weeks, there has been increased speculation that the sequester would go into effect Friday but be addressed in a March deal to keep the government funded. 

Don’t bet on it. 

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), a member of the Finance Committee, predicted sequestration would last through the end of the year.

“Are we going to roll back the size of the cuts? No. I can promise you that,” said Burr. 

President Obama has invited congressional leaders to meet at the White House on Friday, the same day $85 billion in automatic cuts are due to begin. However, congressional sources do not anticipate a deal at that gathering or any time soon.

“It’s going to be one last attempt at trying to convince Republicans of the need for a balanced approach to sequester before the deadline,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide. 


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Earlier this month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) clearly indicated he was not going to sign off on a last-minute deal: “Read my lips: I’m not interested in an 11th-hour negotiation.”

Meanwhile, the White House is backing off its prior warnings that the sequester will strike a quick and devastating blow to the economy. 

A senior GOP aide on Wednesday highlighted news reports that Obama’s political advisers now concede the cuts will not immediately disrupt federal services, managing public expectations in the wake of dire warnings.  

Republicans have accused the administration of using scare tactics on the sequester instead of spending time trying to find a bipartisan remedy.

While lawmakers had initially eyed a continuing resolution (CR) or appropriations omnibus bill as a vehicle for halting the sequester by March 27, that now appears unlikely. 

Obama has signaled to Democratic allies in Congress that his priority is to first take a potential government shutdown off the table. He would prefer to deal with the sequester separately, said Senate Democratic aides. 

Obama and his political team appear confident a growing public backlash over the sequester will pressure GOP leaders to agree to raise taxes to prevent the across-the-board cuts. 

“We remain hopeful that Republicans will understand the need to compromise and that compromise has balance at its essence,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday. 

Policy experts, however, say the sky won’t fall on Friday, and that the public may not notice the impact for weeks or even months. 

“It’s not like the expiration of a continuing resolution where the government shuts down. It’s a lot more like a slow-motion train wreck,” said Loren Adler, senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “The key takeaway is on March 1 or March 5, no doors will be closed, no lights will be turned off. It will take a little while for these cuts to take effect.”

Most unpaid furloughs of government workers will not begin until April, and Defense Department employees will not see furloughs until the end of that month.  

Passenger screenings at airports will suffer little effect, as well — at least initially.  

“The [Transportation Security Administration] is going to be pretty much the same for most of March,” said Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “I have found very few agencies that are going to make changes in March.”

 Lilly said the effects of the sequester are unlikely to occur next month.

“Is it going to be enough to turn some of the hard heads around in the first couple weeks of March? Probably not. It’s going to take longer,” he said. 

Obama has given no indication that he would veto any government funding measure that would continue sequestration, and Democratic leaders will not take a stand without backing from the White House.  

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he will consider legislation to fund government programs beyond the end of March.

“Anything the Speaker has regarding the CR or an omnibus, I’m anxious to see it,” Reid told reporters. “I met with him a day or two before we had our break. We had a nice conversation.”

Several influential House conservatives said Wednesday they would support their leadership’s plan to pass a six-month continuing resolution that would include the $85 billion in sequester cuts. 

Senate Democratic leadership officials are looking at the Senate budget resolution as a possible tool to eradicate the sequester. They argue that deficit-reduction measures proposed by their budget blueprint could justify eliminating it. 

“I think the next step is going to be we’re going to have a budget on the floor maybe by the third week of March,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska). 

But Begich said he’s not optimistic the sequester will be solved anytime soon.

“Anything’s possible, but there’s not a mechanism yet,” he said. 

Democrats acknowledge a budget plan passed by the Senate alone would not be sufficient. Only a bicameral budget resolution negotiated by the Senate Democratic and House Republican leaders could provide enough assurance of future savings to replace the sequester. 

“You would have to have a bipartisan, bicameral budget resolution to fix the sequester,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee. “It would be a long shot. I won’t say it’s impossible.” 

Negotiations to forge a joint resolution with House Republicans could easily drag into the summer.  

The Senate will vote Thursday on a Democratic proposal to stop the sequester and a Republican plan to give Obama more flexibility to manage its effects. Both are expected to fail to reach the required 60-vote threshold. McConnell has asked for votes on additional GOP-sponsored proposals, but Reid has so far rejected those requests.

Democrats have insisted any plan to replace the sequester be evenly balanced between spending cuts and tax increases. Republicans have staunchly refused to raise any more in taxes.

Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, said he does not see a clear path forward after sequestration takes effect Friday.