(Washington Post)- The White House on Sunday detailed how the deep spending cuts set to begin this week would affect programs in every state and the District, as President Obama launched a last-ditch effort to pressure congressional Republicans to compromise on a way to stop the across-the-board cuts.
But while Republicans and Democrats were set to introduce dueling legislative proposals this week to avert the Friday start of the spending cuts, known as the sequester, neither side expected the measures to get enough support to pass Congress.
Lawmakers instead were planning for a lengthy round of political jostling ahead of another budget showdown in late March that could determine whether the $85 billion in cuts to domestic and defense spending this fiscal year stick.
Republicans questioned whether the sequester would be as harmful as the White House predicted and worked on a proposal that could preserve the cuts while giving the administration more discretion to choose how to implement them. Democrats expressed worry that they might be forced to accept the cuts if the public outcry is not loud enough in coming weeks.
Seeking to raise alarm among a public that has not paid much attention to the issue, the White House on Sunday released 51 fact sheets describing what would happen over the next seven months if the cuts go into effect.
The Washington area would be hit hard. Virginia, Maryland and the District cumulatively would lose $29 million in elementary and high school funding, putting at risk 390 teacher and teacher-aide jobs and affecting 27,000 students. About 2,000 poor children would lose access to early education. In the area of public health, less funding would mean 31,400 fewer HIV tests.
And nearly 150,000 civilian Defense Department personnel in the area would be partially furloughed through Sept. 30 — with a total average reduction in pay of $7,500. (Defense Department officials previously explained that the furloughs would probably come in the form of workers being asked to take one day off per week, amounting to a 20 percent cut in pay.)
Obama is planning to go to Newport News on Tuesday to highlight the impact of cuts.
The sequester — worth $1.2 trillion over 10 years — effectively orders the administration to make across-the-board, indiscriminate cuts to agency programs, sparing only some mandatory programs such as Medicaid and food stamps. It is the result of a 2011 deal forged by the White House and Congress to reduce federal borrowing. It was intended as a draconian measure so blunt that it would force lawmakers to find alternative means of reducing the budget deficit. But while Republicans and Democrats have both made suggestions for how to do so, no plan has gotten enough support to pass Congress.
On Sunday, White House officials painted an ominous picture of cuts affecting a wide range of government services if the sequester takes effect — and spotlighted the impact in states that are politically important to Republicans.
Hundreds of teachers could lose their jobs in Ohio, home to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R), officials said, and thousands of children may not get necessary vaccines in conservative Georgia.
White House strategy
Obama’s aides said they would seek to make clear that Republicans are choosing to allow the cuts to go forward instead of agreeing to reduce the deficit by scaling back tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy.
“It’s important to understand why the sequester is going to go into effect,” said Dan Pfeiffer, an Obama senior adviser. “The Republicans are making a policy choice that these cuts are better for the economy than eliminating loopholes that benefit the wealthy.”
“The American people overwhelmingly disagree with that choice,” he added. “But in a constitutional government where Republicans control the House, if they want to force that choice on the American people, they have the right to do that.”
Republicans have rejected the idea of increasing taxes on Americans after more than $600 billion in hikes were approved in January. And on Sunday, some accused the administration of exaggerating the danger of allowing the cuts to begin.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said the Obama administration could manage the cuts — only a small fraction of the federal budget — without them interfering too much with people’s lives.
“There are easy ways to cut this money that the American people will never feel,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Republican congressional aides noted that the House last year passed bills to replace the sequester with other, less-indiscriminate cuts. “The White House needs to spend less time explaining to the press how bad the sequester will be and more time actually working to stop it,” said Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman.
While there’s little hope of avoiding the sequester this week, there will be plenty of political maneuvering. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are expected by Wednesday to hold votes on competing measures to avert it.
The Democratic plan would delay the sequester until January, replacing the across-the-board cuts with a mix of $110 billion worth of new tax revenue and more-narrowly tailored spending cuts. It includes $54 billion in revenue by ensuring that most millionaires pay at least 30 percent of their income to the Internal Revenue Service — something that prompted McConnell to dismiss it immediately as a tax that could not pass.
The GOP plan is still being crafted. Officials said Sunday it might include a provision that would leave the sequester in place but allow more flexibility for agency leaders in imposing the cuts.
“Rather than issuing last-minute press releases on cuts to first responders or troop training or airport security, [Obama] should propose smarter ways to cut Washington spending,” McConnell said. “After all, Washington spending, even with the sequester, is bigger than it was when he got here.”
Both sides, however, have acknowledged that neither offer is designed to win passage and is instead meant to frame the debate in the coming weeks over how they want their rank and file to defend their position back home. Some of the 55 members of the Democratic caucus may even oppose Reid’s plan — particularly farm-state Democrats, because it cuts agriculture subsidies.
The symbolic votes will be taken as Congress is rapidly shifting focus to a new deadline that will serve as the last stand on the sequester: March 27. That is when the stopgap bill for federal funding expires — and without a new one, the government will shut down.
Some House Republicans are considering extending government funding through the remainder of the fiscal year — Sept. 30 — at the low levels imposed by the sequester.
Another option pursued by GOP lawmakers friendly to the Pentagon would attach a more detailed spending outline for the Defense Department so the cuts would have less impact on national security.
Boehner and top aides have said that no decisions have been made on their plan.
Once the House passes a funding resolution, perhaps by early March, the Senate is expected to sit on it for several weeks as the cuts imposed by the sequester begin to play out.
If there’s a public outcry, Democrats would renew their push to replace the across-the-board cuts and pass a different government funding bill than the one passed by the House. Such a move would dare Boehner to accept the new bill or risk shutting down the government.
But Democratic allies realize there’s a chance the sequester’s effects will not be felt by March 27 and the public response could be muted. If that happens, the Democrats might agree to a proposal similar to the Republican plan — keeping the sequester in place but giving the administration more flexibility to manage the cuts.
March 27 and beyond
If the sequester remains the law past March 27, people close to the process say, that is how it will probably remain, at least for the remainder of the fiscal year.
“If it’s not resolved by March 27, this is it. You’re not undoing the sequester,” said Emily Holubowich, executive director of the Coalition for Health Funding, who attended meetings with White House officials last week.
While every other fiscal showdown of the past 21 / 2 years has been resolved at the last minute, there’s little reason to expect that to happen this time.
Obama and congressional leaders have had no face-to-face talks about avoiding the spending cuts. The White House has been pressing liberal allies in the past 10 days to sound the alarm to ratchet up pressure on Republicans, with an eye on making them fold by the late March deadline.
The House returns Monday evening to approve several non-controversial bills — including naming a California space research center after Neil Armstrong — with the latter part of the week devoted to passing its version of a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
The Senate also returns Monday evening, first considering a non-controversial judicial nominee and then dedicating Tuesday to the expected confirmation of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense.
Neither the House nor the Senate is planning to be in session when the sequester hits on Friday.