'Sequester' blues: Morning-after hangover hits Washington

The morning after the 'sequester' spending cuts went into effect, the earth did not stand still nor did Washington come to its collective senses. Next up: How to avoid a government shutdown March 27 when federal spending expires without a continuing resolution.

Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS
President Obama speaks about the 'sequester' after a meeting with congressional leaders at the White House Friday. Mr. Obama pressed Congress to avoid a government shutdown when federal spending authority runs out on March 27, saying it is the 'right thing to do.'

The morning after the "sequester" spending cuts went into effect – $85 billion in an across-the-board whack to both defense and nondefense programs – the earth did not stand still nor did Washington come to its collective senses.

Both the White House and Republicans in Congress seemed spent as they sputtered out their political talking points about what everyone agrees is a lousy way to do the nation’s business.

"It's happening because Republicans in Congress chose this outcome over closing a single wasteful tax loophole that helps reduce the deficit," President Obama said in his weekly radio/Internet address.

The rebuttal Saturday morning came from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R) of Washington.

"The American people know full well that if they give this White House more tax revenue, it will be spent on new stimulus projects and government programs,” she said in the GOP address. "Instead of campaigning for higher taxes, the president should lead an effort to begin addressing our nation's spending problem.”

Since he won reelection, Mr. Obama seems to have kept the political upper hand – at least according to recent polls showing him more popular than congressional Republicans, both personally and in terms of policy.

The Pew Research Center finds that 62 percent of those surveyed (including 36 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of independents) agree that the GOP is “out of touch with the American people.”

Still, warns analyst Charlie Cook in the National Journal, “All sides should take notice of the mounting public disgust.”

“There is still a threat that public ire is aimed more institutionally – at Congress, at Washington, and at all politicians who work in Washington,” he writes. “The turbulence caused by this universal anger could manifest itself in many ways, selectively hurting members of both parties, depending on their political circumstances.”

That includes Obama as he tries to dig into his second term, which will determine his legacy.

“He set into a motion a risky strategy that rests entirely on the slim chance that Republicans do an about-face on tax hikes after a public outcry,” writes Politico’s Carrie Budoff Brown. “Obama faces an uncertain few months as he attempts to balance a series of budget battles with his ambitious second-term agenda, all while hoping that the sequester doesn’t dampen the fragile economic recovery that he’s worked hard to achieve.”

So far, there has been no such public outcry backing Obama on closing tax loopholes for the wealthy, despite the “elections have consequences” mantra voiced by Democrats. In truth, Obama has only about a year to get past the sequester battle and gain any momentum for the other things he’d like to do – immigration, gun safety, childhood education, raising the minimum wage. It’s possible that his party’s majority position in the Senate could weaken in the 2014 elections.

Meanwhile, the impact of the sequester order, which Obama signed shortly before midnight Friday, is unclear although the effects are being forecast by the agencies involved.

Furlough notices are starting to go out to hundreds of thousands of federal workers, including Defense Department civilians, prison guards, airport security officers, and agriculture inspectors. (Uniformed military personnel, the US Postal Service, and the Department of Veterans Affairs are exempt.)
The military’s aerial hotshots – the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy Blue Angels – are canceling air shows. National park hours are likely to be trimmed. State Department cultural programs will be pinched. Grants to states for public schools, Head Start, housing and community development, and environmental cleanup will be cut.

"The cuts required by sequestration will be deeply destructive to national security, domestic investments and core government functions," White House budget official Jeffrey Zients wrote in a letter accompanying the president’s sequester order.
In his radio address Saturday, Obama warned of “a ripple effect across the economy.”

“Businesses will suffer because customers will have less money to spend,” he said. "Many middle-class families will have their lives disrupted in a significant way."

Whether or not that happens remains an open question – especially to Republicans who have downplayed the likely impact of sequestration. In some ways, it’s a matter of “who blinks first.”

But beyond sequestration, another fight looms: the prospect of a government shutdown March 27, when federal spending expires without a continuing resolution. The last time that happened was when Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich butted heads in the mid-1990s, and wasn’t that fun?

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