Just four days remain until Friday’s start date for federal spending cuts that were supposed to be too painful to ever let happen, but lawmakers return to Washington on Monday with little hope for an eleventh-hour deal to avert or reshape them—or any let-up in the fighting over who is to blame.
Sequester week has finally arrived. Most of the $85 billion in reductions set to thump almost every area of government will be stretched out over the remaining seven months of this fiscal year. But impacts on the economy, government services, and programs could become evident within weeks, and hundreds of thousands of federal workers could face furloughs by April.
As Congress and President Obama focus on what type of political settlement might still be reached—and how this might mesh with upcoming action needed to keep government funded—lawmakers will wrestle this week with other controversial matters:
- The Senate is expected to vote as early as Tuesday on the confirmation of Obama’s nominee for Defense secretary, former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, even as some Republicans continue urging the president to withdraw the nomination.
- The House is expected to act on a bill reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. A Rules Committee hearing is set for Tuesday on an amended version of the Senate-passed bill, and a floor vote is anticipated later in the week. The Senate’s bills last session and this year have been passed with bipartisan votes. But they have met with opposition from House Republicans, who object to provisions giving explicit new protections for classes of people based on sexual orientation and new authority to tribal courts to prosecute abuse cases against those who are not Native Americans. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the House bill unveiled Friday “is not a compromise.” Each side has accused the other of playing politics with legislation Congress first passed in 1994 and has reauthorized twice with bipartisan support.
- The Senate Intelligence Committee will continue to consider—and may vote on—Obama’s nomination of John Brennan to be director of the CIA, though he will likely continue to face questions over the constitutionality of drone strikes. Closed hearings have been set for Tuesday and Thursday.
But it’s the sequester cuts and their looming impact that will be the main focus of lawmakers’ attention this week. For instance, the Senate is expecting this week to hold a floor vote on a Democratic bill that would help pay down the sequester’s total by repealing tax loopholes for oil companies, eliminating some farm-industry subsidies, and resurrecting the idea of a new minimum tax rate on those who make more than $1 million annually.
But Republicans say they will not go along with replacing the cuts with new revenues, and they emphasize that they have passed plans (though not this session) to substitute other cuts for those now set to hit defense and domestic discretionary spending evenly.
Amid this stalemate, a scramble to affix political blame has begun. Republicans claim the White House came up with the sequester idea in the first place and has failed to do anything to avert it. The White House in turn accuses Republicans of failing to seize opportunities for compromise and has taken to underscoring the damage that sequestration will bring. For instance, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Monday are addressing the National Governors Association at the White House; on Tuesday, Obama will travel to Newport News, Va., for a speech at Newport News Shipbuilding to talk about the impact of the sequester on the defense industry.
But sequestration is, in fact, a default plan contained within the 2011 Budget Control Act, which was supported that year by Obama and leaders in both parties and then passed by both chambers. The plan was to match debt-ceiling increases with deficit reduction.
The idea behind including such sweeping cuts was that they would be so harsh and onerous to both parties that the bipartisan so-called super committee would certainly be able to agree on a better plan to cut $1.2 trillion over the next decade. But it failed to do its job.
Despite the rhetoric and the lack of signs heading into this week of a bipartisan agreement to preempt the cuts, some lawmakers aren’t so certain a last-second deal won’t be reached. Some have even scrapped their scheduled weekend events in their districts on the chance they could be in Washington, taking action on just such a settlement.
BUDGET AND SPENDING
Time Runs Out On the Sequester
The $85 billion in cuts set to begin on Friday are just the first installment of the sequester’s $1.2 trillion in across-the-board reductions over the next decade. These first-year cuts were supposed to hit on Jan. 1, but lawmakers were able to delay them until March 1 by finding other specific cuts and some new revenue, thus bringing the total left to be cut this year down from $109 billion.