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Plenty of posturing but little progress on sequester talks

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 27, 2013 - WASHINGTON – The day before the sequester budget axe was due to fall, there was plenty of posturing on Capitol Hill but apparently precious little progress on reaching a deal to avert the across-the-board cuts.

While U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the Senate would consider today a Democratic bill that aims to replace the sequester with a “balanced approach” including some revenues, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said GOP senators would block that plan. A separate Republican proposal also will be offered.

Given that Durbin and Blunt are members of their party leadership teams, chances for a last-minute deal to avert the sequester appeared dim. Neither the Democratic nor the GOP Senate plan had enough support to muster the 60 votes needed.

On Thursday afternoon, the Senate failed to advance either the Democratic or the Republican alternatives to the sequester -- meaning that the across-the-board cuts will start Friday. The Democratic bill failed 51-49 to reach the required 60-vote threshold; the GOP plan failed, 38-62. Senators from Missouri and Illinois voted along party lines.

After the votes, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said she backed the Democratic alternative “to continue to cut spending and reduce our deficit in a balanced way,” and voted no on the GOP plan because it “would fix nothing and is only part of the Washington blame-game.”

Blunt, who voted the opposite way, said he opposed revenue increases. He said Obama "has the ability to minimize the impact of sequestration on our nation's economy and protect national security. We need presidential leadership to ensure these cuts are targeted."

Both Durbin and Blunt had agreed Wednesday that the Republican-controlled House might have blocked any agreement reached by the Senate.

“Instead of trying again [to reach a deal], the House has basically decided to leave town” on Friday, Durbin said. “I implore the speaker and all the leaders on both sides of the aisle to come together and solve this problem.”

To be sure, President Barack Obama called a White House meeting Friday – hours after the sequester kicks in – with congressional leaders. But Blunt told reporters Wednesday that the meeting was mere window-dressing and was not likely to produce a deal.

“These spending cuts are going to happen. They are not going to be offset by new revenues,” Blunt told reporters Wednesday. “The negotiating room for the president is: How do you want to take the cuts?” Blunt said revenues are “off the table” now.

“The across-the-board cuts in the president’s sequester model are the worst way to take cuts,” said Blunt, who – like his colleagues Durbin and McCaskill – voted in 2011 for the budget bill that included the sequester trigger that fires Friday. “We’ve got to get spending headed in a different direction.”

For her part, McCaskill told reporters Wednesday that – even though she holds out hope for an eventual compromise – “it appears to me that the cuts will begin to take effect this week.” She noted, however, that “the impact won’t be felt immediately. It will be over a period of time.”

Beginning Friday, the sequester is a months-long process for cutting $85 billion from federal spending from the Pentagon and non-defense discretionary programs – which exclude entitlements like Social Security. Those cutbacks will be especially harsh on defense programs but also will affect other parts of the federal government.

The cuts “will have an impact in our state,” said McCaskill, predicting a “downturn” in Missouri communities around big military bases – notably, Fort Leonard Wood and Whiteman Air Force Base – that employ hundreds of civilian military employees. “There will be job losses” and furloughs, McCaskill said.

In a Senate speech, Durbin – the second-ranking Senate Democrat, who chairs the defense appropriations subcommittee – said sequestration would hurt Illinois defense installations such as Scott Air Force Base, Rock Island Arsenal and the Air Guard units in Springfield and Peoria.

Durbin predicted that “15,000 civilian personnel in Illinois could be furloughed for 22 days over the next 7 months – essentially a 20 percent pay cut.” He added, “This means $52 million coming out of the pockets of working families in Illinois at a time when we are recovering from the worst recession in decades.  Delaying or canceling necessary military construction in the state could mean a loss of another $27 million.”

While he also mentioned the impact on defense, Blunt highlighted another sequestration issue that he said “particularly affects Missouri workers” – that is, whether the food safety inspectors show up at processing facilities for meat and eggs across the state.

Missouri has nearly 150 meatpacking facilities, and federal inspectors – who might be furloughed a day or so a week starting in April – must be physically present to oversee the processing of meat, eggs and poultry. Last week, Blunt asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to try to prevent such furloughs to inspectors.

“If the president does this and Secretary Vilsack” furloughs inspectors, Blunt said Wednesday, “I think they're going to find that they have significantly overplayed their hand by finding the most painful way to deal with hard-working families who just want to go to work.”

On the House side, U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, whose district includes Scott Air Force Base – where many of the 4,200 civilian military employees could face furloughs of perhaps one day a week – stood in the well of the House and read a letter from a constituent who described the plight of a young National Guard family:

“Sarah & Mike. Young couple, one small child and another on the way. Both deployed to Afghanistan with us back in 2008. If nothing changes, Sarah will get hit with the furloughs & Mike will probably lose his full time National Guard job entirely. This is just devastating… I cannot believe Congress is going to let this train wreck happen.”

Whether or not the “train wreck” description applies, it appeared that – despite a few last-minute efforts at compromise – the sequester will indeed take effect on Friday. The real question was whether Congress can act to lessen the impact by March 27 – the date that the continuing resolution – which keeps the government funded – is set to expire.

Between now and March 27, Congress must either extend current spending with another continuing resolution or come up with a spending plan to keep the government going. If not, the slowdown would be transformed into a government shutdown. Such a bill might, for instance, include a retroactive provision to give the Pentagon and other federal departments more flexibility in how they implement cutbacks.

McCaskill held out hope that such a deal might be reached before the 27th. “ I’m hoping that, as we look at our budget decisions by the end of the month on funding the government, that we can wrap it all in a big package,” she said.

Ideally, McCaskill wants such a deal to “replace these mandatory, thoughtless across-the-board cuts with targeted cuts of wasteful programs and programs that don’t have the kind of priority that our national defense does, and we can close a few [tax] loopholes.”

But Blunt said Republicans would not agree to closing such tax loopholes – even tax breaks for Big Oil companies and a “Buffet rule” provision to set minimum taxes for millionaires – because, over the long run, tax hikes would hurt the economy.

Blunt said he would consider supporting legislation to give the White House more discretion on what cutbacks to make under the total defined in the sequested, “but I would insist, for my vote, that the Senate . . .  appropriate to the number that the law now sets. And that’s the model for the next 10 years unless we break that model right now – and I think we will not.”

On the record, White House spokesmen say Obama holds out hope for a deal to avert the sequester. “The president has been engaged and will continue to be engaged with congressional leaders of both parties on the issue of the sequester,” spokesman Jay Carney said. But there seemed to be no down-to-the-wire efforts to reach a quick deal.

Durbin said, “We’re just days away from a budgetary perfect storm that we created. We’ve got to come together to have a more balanced and sensible approach to reducing the deficit.”

Senate to vote on two plans, both expected to fail

On Thursday, the Senate was expected to vote on opposing Democratic and Republican plans to avert the sequester – with both bills providing political “cover” but neither proposal likely to reach the 60 votes needed to pass.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nv., is expected to offer a plan that would delay the sequester for at least 10 months by substituting more targeted budget cuts combined with about $110 billion in new revenues.

The revenue would derive from a 30 percent “Buffet Rule” minimum tax on the wealthy, which would fully kick in for families with adjusted gross incomes over $5 million. It would be phased in for those in the range between $1 million and $5 million.

Under the Democrats’ bill, the targeted budget savings would come from cutting direct-payment farm subsidies and lowering future appropriations for defense spending. Late Wednesday, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the net budget impact of the plan -- as compared to sequester cuts – would add about $7 billion to the deficit over a decade.

The GOP alternative plan – which had been hotly debated by Senate Republicans in their closed caucuses – would give the White House more authority and flexibility for the rest of this fiscal year (until September 30) in implementing the $85 billion in cuts called for by the sequester.

The bill is written to give Republicans political “cover” in the blame game that will follow the painful cutbacks under the sequester. It would require the president to send to Congress by mid-March his administration's alternate plan to achieve the same level of budget reductions as the sequester.

At that point, Congress could overrule Obama’s plan if opponents are able to muster two-thirds majorities in both the Senate and House – an extremely difficult thing to do. Despite opposition by some GOP senators, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, was said to have okayed the proposal on Wednesday.