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Few details yet on area sequester cuts, as Washington officials spar over possible alternatives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 25, 2013 - When it comes to the federal government’s looming sequester cuts, the details remain frustratingly elusive.

President Barack Obama’s administration released figures Sunday showing a state-by-state breakdown of the $85 billion in cuts that are slated to go into effect this Friday. The cuts would be in effect for the remaining seven months of the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.

For Missouri and Illinois, the overall losses in federal money amount to more than $100 million apiece.  A study by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States says that Illinois will be the second hardest-hit state in the country, with the sequester cuts amounting to more than 8 percent of its general revenue. (The highest percentage is South Dakota's 10.3 percent cut).

But the specifics of those state cuts, as well as the overall trims, are still being working out, according to White House spokesmen who held a conference call Monday afternoon with regional reporters.

The sequester calls for across-the-board cuts of 13 percent in defense spending and 9 percent in other federal spending for the current fiscal year, said Amy Brundage, the White House’s deputy press secretary for economic issues. Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security are exempted from the cuts.

The chief message out of the administration’s call? The president dislikes the sequester, had never expected the across-the-board cuts to go into effect, has offered up an alternative and hopes that Congress soon comes up with an acceptable alternative that also would include some revenue hikes.

“These cuts were never intended to be policy but were actually intended to act as a forcing mechanism to insure that Congress act in a balanced way on deficit reduction,” said Brundage.

House Republicans, led by Speaker John Boehner, replied at an afternoon news conference tha the sequester had originally been the White House’s idea and Republicans will support only cuts in spending, not tax increases.

Republicans had strongly supported the sequester idea, crafted during the 2011 battle over increasing the federal debt ceiling.

New U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, stood prominently at Boehner’s side during the news conference. Wagner has released a list of some of her alternatives to the across-the-board sequester cuts.

According to the most recent Missouri employment figures, the St. Louis region is home to about 26,200 federal jobs -- the bulk of them non-military. (Just under 1,500 were defense-related, the Missouri figures show.)

But White House officials emphasized Monday that the impact would be felt in the private job market as well, since many private businesses rely on federal contracts and federal-employee spending -- all of which would be at risk if the sequester cuts go into effect.

In the St. Louis area, for example, Boeing Co. -- a major defense contractor -- is among the region's top employers.

(Update) On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., sent a letter to the U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, asking that the Department of Agriculture come up with an alternative to its plan to furlough all employees, including food inspectors, for 15 days in order to deal with the sequester cuts.

"Since a federal inspector must be present during processing of meat, poultry, and egg products, the decision to implement furloughs without the use of available flexibility will shutter 6,290 facilities nationwide, resulting in more than $400 million in lost wages for the over 500,000 individuals who work in these facilities, including over 43,000 workers in Missouri,” Blunt wrote. “Taking into account over one million livestock and poultry producers who rely on these plants operating as planned, the economic impact on the private sector would be unduly devastating.” (End update)

Brundage and Jason Furman, principal deputy director of the National Economic Council, told reporters in the conference call that the state-by-state breakdown had been put together by the various federal departments and agencies, with the help of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

After assembling information on the cuts, the various agencies and departments are now figuring out how to carry them out, Brundage and Furman said. He characterized the implementation plans as “department by department.”

Brundage that average Americans might see “some effects right away, and some down the road.”

One example of the former would be 10 percent trims in long-term unemployment benefits, Furman said. Examples of the latter might likely include the cuts in education and defense programs, the duo indicated.

The Defense Department will decide how to implement its sequester cuts, which amount to a 13 percent trim in its operating budget for the current fiscal year, the two White House officials said.

At a press conference earlier today, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, said for example that Scott Air Force, a major economic engine, could see 4,500 civilian employees on once-a-week furloughs, resulting in an estimated $28 million loss for the region’s economy.

Furman contended that the cuts will threaten national security, while Brundage noted that Republicans previously had said they opposed the defense sequester cuts.

(Unsuccessful Republican U.S. Senate nominee Todd Akin, for example, had repeatedly said during his campaign that the military aspect of the sequester cuts had to be stopped.)

Still, Missouri’s two U.S. senators, Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Roy Blunt, have each said they expect the cuts to go into effect. McCaskill said at a news conference last week that she hoped a congressional deal could be cut within weeks to eliminate most of the sequester cuts.

Blunt said during an earlier St. Louis visit that he would support a GOP proposal to allow the president to decide where and how the $85 billion in cuts should be made, thus doing away with the across-the-board mandate. But Furman and Brundage shot down that idea.

In Missouri and Illinois, education officials have laid out generally dismal pictures of how the cuts would affect both states’ education programs.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat and in Washington for a gathering of the National Governors Association, sought to stay out of the partisan sparring.  In a statement, Nixon said, "In Missouri, we work together to balance budgets and cut spending -- and that's what needs to get done in Washington."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.