Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013 | 1:52 p.m.
It’s all but official: Congress’ inability to strike an alternative deal on deficit reduction means that sequestration — those across-the-board cuts that were considered too unbearable to ever take effect — will start on Friday.
Senators failed Thursday to pass either of two proposals to replace sequester cuts with other, less-painful measures to reduce spending and/or generate revenue.
But a combination of delayed reactions and crisis fatigue meant lawmakers were looking incredibly calm just hours before their self-imposed deadline.
“We’re going to the White House tomorrow,” Sen. Harry Reid told reporters Thursday afternoon, indicating that he and Republican congressional leaders were waiting to start serious discussions about a sequestration compromise until they met with President Barack Obama on Friday.
“What I would hope is Republicans there would agree with Republicans around the country, that we should have a balanced approach,” Reid added.
The sequestration fight is just the latest chapter in a years-long tug-of-war between Republicans and Democrats over deficit reduction. Republican lawmakers want to bring down the national debt through budget cuts, and Democrats advocate a mixed strategy that includes raising taxes on millionaires incrementally.
When deadlines approached in previous rounds of this argument — such as the fiscal cliff, budget extensions and the debt ceiling compromise that established the sequester threat in August 2011 — one would have found top lawmakers huddled in backrooms weeks ago, test-ballooning policies while keeping the political pressure at a fever pitch through public rhetoric.
This time, if Congress misses the March 1 onset date for sequestration — as it is all but assured — there is less immediate doomsday to fear, which might explain why lawmakers appear to be so unhurried.
Sequestration is set to take up to a 10 percent bite out of the budgets of affected agencies, the bulk of which operate in realm of national security and defense.
Republicans and Democrats alike have warned that the blow to the economy when contractors and civilian employees are laid off will be destructive.
But on Thursday, Reid acknowledged that the cuts wouldn’t really kick in until March 27; the day when the federal government’s current budget authority, which doesn’t yet reflect lowered sequester spending levels, runs out.
“We could get it all done at once,” Reid said, referencing how both the sequester’s real effect and the government’s budget authority were coming down to March 27. “It would be so easy to do.”
Yet the task seems bound to be mired in just as much political quicksand as previous efforts to strike an accord on deficit reduction.
On Thursday, the Senate considered two sequester alternatives. One, backed by Democrats, would have reoriented some of the pending cuts and offset others by instituting the so-called Buffett Rule — a requirement that millionaires pay at least a 30 percent effective tax rate. Senators voted 51-49 in favor of pursuing that alternative, but failed to get the 60 votes necessary to circumvent the threat of a filibuster.
The Republican alternative, which would give Obama the authority to pick and choose where to make sequester-level cuts in lieu of a blunt, across-the-board approach, fared even worse: Only 38 senators voted in favor of it, as many Republicans who balked at giving Obama so much autonomy — including Nevada Sen. Dean Heller — refused to support it.
That sends Congress back to the drawing board. But with just hours left until the sequestration deadline, rank-and-file lawmakers were headed out of town to start a long weekend.
The effective grace period between Friday and when the cuts actually take effect on March 27, however, give them a little more time to work out a deal.
It also gives workers, students, teachers, seniors, travelers and others wondering how their lives will be affected by sequestration a few more weeks to figure out how to absorb the impact.
Christine Crews, a spokeswoman for McCarran International Airport, said the sequester won’t affect staffing levels for at least a month.
But anyone whose jobs depend directly on sequestration cuts can expect preliminary warnings about what cuts may take effect to start coming sooner than that.
Federal agencies are required to give at least 30 days notice to their employees if furloughs or layoffs are coming. Once the March 1 deadline passes, certain agencies are expected to start sending warning letters.