Still Gridlocked, Politicians Brace Themselves As Sequester Approaches

 @JaceyFortin
on February 24 2013 3:03 PM
Obama
In the immediate aftermath of the mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., U.S. President Barack Obama asked that background checks be a part of a Senate measure to stop gun violence. Reuters/Larry Downing

In the final days before the dreaded U.S. budget cuts of “sequestration” are scheduled to kick in, politicians on both sides of the aisle are growing more pessimistic about finding a solution -- and preemptively assigning blame.

"There's no reason we should be playing this kind of brinksmanship," Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said during a Sunday appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

"Let's get rid of the gimmicks … [and] get back to ordinary budgeting just like what happens at every state capitol every year."

If the sequestration takes place on March 1, it will cut $85.4 billion from this year’s federal budget, which would only be the beginning of $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years. The measure would slash federal programs across the board, including military and domestic discretionary spending.

Politicians are working to come up with a deficit-reducing deal that would prevent the sequestration, but the gap between parties is as wide as ever. Republicans see a reduction in domestic spending as the best way forward, and have opposed raising taxes or shaving off any defense spending. Democrats have favored generating more revenues via tax increases while cutting defense expenditures and agricultural subsidies.

But as the clock ticks on without consensus, what was once proposed as a worst-case scenario is looking increasingly likely.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday" he expected the sequestration to kick in on Friday, but that the White House was exaggerating the expected impact of the cuts.

“It is a terrible way to cut spending, but not to cut 2.5 percent over the total budget over a year when it is twice the size it was 10 years ago? Give me a break. We see all these claims about what a tragedy it's going to be," he said.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who appeared alongside Coburn on Fox, agreed that the sequester was likely to come into effect at the end of this week.

“Unless the Republicans are willing to compromise and do a balanced approach, I think it will kick in," she said, faulting both sides for a failure to negotiate.

“We shouldn’t be passing the blame to the executive branch,’” she added.

The origins of this crisis can be traced back to August 2011, when President Barack Obama signed the Budget Control Act, immediately enabling him to raise the debt ceiling by $400 billion after weeks of down-to-the-wire wrangling. The deal maintained that spending cuts would be enforced in order to rein in the ever- growing burden of federal debt.

The sequester was originally designed as an undesirable consequence, to be avoided at all costs. It stipulated that if lawmakers could not agree on how to reduce spending or increase revenues by Dec. 31, 2012, massive cuts abhorrent to both parties would come into force when 2013 began.

But a New Year’s Eve agreement resulted in only a partial deal, and a final decision was put off until March 1.

Obama, who has said he favors a deal whereby every $1 in new revenue was matched by $2 in spending cuts, is in for a tense week as the sequester clashes come to a head. But the disputes could be far from over -- the White House has floated the idea of an agreement that would delay the sequester for two more months, in effect kicking the can down the road one more time.

Asked during a Friday press conference whether Congress might reach a deal before March 1, Obama responded wryly.

“Hope springs eternal,” he said.

“I will just keep on making my case not only to Congress, but more importantly the American people to take a smart approach to deficit reduction and do it in a way that doesn’t endanger our economy and endanger jobs.”

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