Player of the Week: The sequester

There will be plenty of press conferences this week on the fast-approaching deadline for the spending cuts known as the sequester. But the chances that the parties will reach a bipartisan deal range from slim to none.

The Senate this week is expected to debate competing sequester bills, but both are likely to fall short of 60 votes needed to pass. Even if the Senate Democratic bill squeaks by in the upper chamber, it will be dead on arrival in the GOP-led House.

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It is worth noting that the sequester includes $1.2 trillion in cuts, taking place over 10 years. Domestic and defense spending will be cut starting Friday, though the sequester could be killed in a month’s time.

By the end of March, Republicans and Democrats will have to strike a deal on funding the government for the rest of the fiscal year. If they don’t, most of the government would shut down.

Republican leaders, remembering how badly they fared in public opinion the last time that happened, don’t want that to happen, but neither does the White House.

The question remains, however, whether the government would be funded at sequestration levels or at the higher pre-sequestration thresholds.

The White House is warning of major ramifications if the billions of dollars in the plan are sequestrated, saying it would damage the nation’s security, air travel and food safety.

Should those predictions come true, triggering a public outcry, lawmakers will be under intense pressure to pass legislation undoing the across-the-board cuts. 

Which party would be blamed more? That remains to be seen. The sequester idea originated in the White House, but polls show that the GOP is vulnerable on the issue.

On the other hand, if the sequester comes along and produces the same sort of disaster as Y2K— in other words, if almost no one is affected at all — Republicans will claim victory and say it shows that the sky does not fall when government spending is cut.

It is unclear how long the sequester will survive. It could be a matter of days, weeks or months; no one really expects it to last through 2023. But whatever the case, fiscal fights will dominate Congress for years to come.