'Sequester' is happening. What does the White House do now?

The White House repeatedly told Americans that the sequester would be devastating. Now that the cuts are here, President Obama is trying to strike a less-alarming tone.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama speaks to members of the media at the start of a cabinet meeting in the White House in Washington, Monday. He discussed the 'sequester.'

OK, sequestration is really happening. Monday is the first full workday during which $85 billion in automatic federal budget reductions are in effect. Administration officials from President Obama on down have spent weeks warning about the dire effect of these reductions. So what’s the White House going to do now?

Tone down the rhetoric, for a start. Mr. Obama’s predictions of lost jobs and a slowing economy did not push Republicans into agreeing to a "sequester" avoidance deal containing some measure of increased tax revenues. Given that the effects of the budget cuts will take some time to get rolling, the White House is moving away a bit from dire talk. Democrats don’t want to be portrayed as the budgeteers who cried wolf once too often.

“I think the real issue is that this is, as the president said, a slow grind,” said White House economic adviser Gene Sperling during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week.” “When this sequester goes off, yes, it’s not going to hurt as much on Day 1. But, again, every independent economist agrees it is going to cost our economy 750,000 jobs just as our economy has a chance to take off.”

Second, the administration wants to give the appearance of a sadder but wiser organization that’s pivoting to other business.

Thus on Monday Obama had his revamped cabinet in for a meeting. Just-confirmed Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was there, as well as new Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew.

In remarks for the cameras, Obama prior to the meeting said he and the assembled department secretaries would talk about ways to ease sequester pain on federal employees. But he added that his agenda is “broader” than just preventing budget cuts. Thus the cabinet would also talk about immigration reform, early childhood education, and gun-control efforts, he said.

“So one of the things that I’ve instructed not just my White House, but every agency, is to make sure that, regardless of some of the challenges that they may face because of sequestration, we’re not going to stop working on behalf of the American people,” said the president.

Third, the White House will continue lower-level efforts at negotiating an end to the sequester. Officials note that over the weekend Obama phoned a number of lawmakers in an attempt to see if any movement on the issue was possible. But the point of the calls isn’t exactly clear. It’s not even clear whom Obama spoke to. He does not appear to have contacted House Speaker John Boehner or Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. Without their agreement, any discussion of compromise is just a couple of people shooting the breeze.

“I don’t have a list for you.... It’s not necessarily helpful for, you know, individual senators to have those conversations specifically read out,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney on Monday.

Meanwhile, top Republicans continue to describe the sequester cuts as modest. They compare them to the drop in take-home income most workers suffered at the beginning of the year when a payroll tax cut expired.

“I don’t know whether it’s going to hurt the economy or not. I don’t think anyone quite understands how the sequester is really going to work,” said Speaker Boehner Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

With no path to compromise visible all that seems certain at the moment is that the United States will indeed find out how the sequester works and whether it damages the economy or not in the weeks and months ahead.

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