Sequester begins, with no end in sight for across-the-board spending cuts

Nineteen months after it was put into place, the sequester has arrived.

Barring unexpected developments, President Obama will issue an order at some point on Friday — perhaps as late as 11:59 p.m. — cancelling some $85 billion in spending across the federal government.

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It’s an outcome that no one in Washington wanted. When the across-the-board cuts were devised in the summer of 2011, they were intended to be so destructive, so appallingly arbitrary, that the parties would have no choice but to swallow a “grand bargain” on cutting the deficit.

But that breakthrough never came, and it’s unclear if one ever will.

Obama is scheduled to host congressional leaders at the White House on Friday, but few expect that meeting to spark progress on undoing the cuts that both sides have bemoaned as foolish.

“I think it’s probably going to take a while before there’s a real meeting,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said on Thursday. “I would look at tomorrow as a photo op — I really would. And I don’t know of anybody who’s viewing it differently at this point.”

In the unlikely event that the White House talk produced a deal, both the House and the Senate have already jetted out of town, making the beginning of sequestration a foregone conclusion.

“The Republicans want the sequester to go forward,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said at a Thursday news conference. “They've said so. And any efforts to get a reasonable approach to this, they won't let us do it.”

The only legislative action on the cuts this week occurred in the Senate, where lawmakers on Thursday voted down a pair of sequester replacement measures along mostly partisan lines.

On the House side, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) reiterated that his chamber would wait for the Senate to act. House Republicans pushed through two measures to replace the spending cuts last year, both of which expired at the start of the new Congress.

“Listen, we've laid out cards on the table,” said Boehner, who earlier this week told senators to “get off their ass.”

“We've shown that we can pass bills to replace the sequester. It's why we did it twice. It's time for the Senate to act.”


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With negotiations at a standstill, the Obama administration released a memo to give executive branch agencies guidance on how to implement cuts that will slice 9 percent off non-defense discretionary spending and 13 percent on the defense side.

Lawmakers doubt that the two parties will coalesce around a sequester replacement any time soon, even as they hope to deal with the cuts in a measure to fund the government past March 27.

“I think bad things are going to happen as far as national defense is concerned,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a defense hawk who voted against both Senate sequester bills. “I think the ramifications for the military are very severe. I hope that is a forcing mechanism to bring us back together.”

Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said the GOP’s refusal to replace part of the sequester with new tax revenues was to blame for the impasse.

Senate Democrats won 51 votes — short of the 60 necessary — on Thursday for their plan to replace the sequester with roughly a 50-50 split of revenues and spending cuts.

A GOP plan, which fell 62 to 38, would have given Obama more freedom to manage the $85 billion in cuts, which are to be implemented over a seven-month span.

Hundreds of thousands of federal employees are facing furloughs and lost pay if the sequester is kept in place. Because of notice requirements, those furloughs would likely not start until at least April, and even later in the month for civilian Pentagon employees.

The pain from the cuts, Carney said, would be “significant,” though not immediate.

"They don't all happen on Saturday,” he said. “It’s a gradual process.”

The Thursday memo from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) advised agencies to limit hiring, employee bonuses and travel to help cope with reduced funding levels.

OMB added that agencies needed to work with employee unions to help cope with the impact on workers. The National Treasury Employees Union, for instance, said Thursday that it was ready to bargain with the IRS over the potential five to seven furlough days that would hit employees this summer.

Carney said the sequester cuts have already exacted their toll on the operations of government, including the crafting of the White House budget, which is weeks late and now expected in March.

"The series of manufactured crises around budget issues, certainly has resulted at least in part in those experts in the administration who work on those issues having to spend a lot of time dealing with those crises rather than on that,” he said. “But that's part of the job, and they're working on the budget."

With the sequester deadline passed, lawmakers are turning their attention to the expiration of government funding later this month.

The House is expected to vote next week on a measure to fund the final six months of the fiscal year, a measure that is expected to keep funding at sequester levels.

“We believe that the spending reductions that were agreed to we need to adhere to,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). “And the question is: Can we figure out a way to do it more sensibly?”

“I think the answer is yes, if they’d be willing to work with us. But I’m not holding my breath on that.”

Reid said Thursday that he hoped lawmakers could come together and negotiate a replacement for the sequester in the bill funding the government.

But with both sides dug in, that could lead to yet another set of protracted fiscal negotiations — and the possibility that the sequester will never end.

“Now is the time to get this done, and not let it go beyond March” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “Get not only the budget done for this year — we can get sequestration off the table. We can get some predictability for the private sector.”