Stage set for war on sequester

Zachary A. Goldfarb and Paul Kane / The Washington Post /

WASHINGTON — The White House on Sunday detailed how deep spending cuts set to begin Friday would affect programs across the nation, as President Barack Obama launched a last-ditch effort to pressure Republicans to compromise on a way to stop across-the-board cuts.

But while Republicans and Democrats were set to introduce legislative proposals this week to avert the start of the spending cuts, known as the sequester, neither side expected the measures to pass Congress. Lawmakers instead expected more political jostling ahead of another budget showdown in late March, which could determine whether the $85 billion in cuts to domestic and defense spending 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 worried 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 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 suggested how to do so, no plan has cleared 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.

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 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 Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are expected by Wednesday to hold votes on dueling pieces of legislation to avert it.

The Democratic plan would delay the sequester until January, replacing 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.

The GOP plan is still being crafted. Officials said Sunday it might leave the sequester in place but allow flexibility for agency leaders in making 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. 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.

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 would attach a more detailed spending outline for the Defense Department so the cuts would have less of an impact on national security.

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 Republican House Speaker John Boehner to accept the new bill or risk shutting down the government.

However, Democratic allies realize that 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.

If the sequester remains law past March 27, people close to the process say, that is how it will probably remain, at least for the rest of the fiscal year.