Countdown to spending cuts: A matter of hours

Posted at 6:49 AM, Mar 01, 2013
and last updated 2013-03-01 06:49:08-05

Occupy Congress

By Alan Silverleib and Dana Bash

WASHINGTON (CNN) — With no deal in place in Congress, $85 billion in sweeping federal spending cuts will take effect Friday, targeting everything, from defense to education.

There is little hope of a last minute deal to stave off the automatic cuts after the Senate failed to strike a deal and a large number of the members of the House left Washington on Thursday for the weekend.

The pending budget cuts are the result of impasse along primarily party lines, whose origins stem from an August 2011 deal to reduce the nation’s debt limit by more than $1 trillion.

Expectations are low that a meeting Friday morning between President Barack Obama and congressional leaders will yield a solution.

Most observers believe both sides will use the meeting at the White house to underline their positions heading into the next round of the budget wars — a possible government shutdown on March 27, when current federal funding authority expires.

Under the law, Obama is required to sign an order sometime Friday that will force federal spending to shrink.

If that happens, Obama will formally notify government agencies that an obscure process known as sequestration is in effect.

It’s unknown what immediate effect the cuts will have on Americans. Obama has warned it could devastate a fragile economy, while Republicans have challenged the dire warnings.

Leaving town

“I think the sequester is crazy, I think the president had to show more leadership, Congress should do more,” said Rep. Peter King, a Republican heading back to New York. “But just to sit here by myself serves no purpose.”

King was one of many congressmen who, before noon Thursday, walked down the Capitol steps and into awaiting cars to leave Washington. Democrats criticized Republicans for not even sticking around when the cuts start coming; Republicans, in turn, blasted Democrats for not stepping up to do more to rein in spending.

There was plenty of blame to go around — but not a lot of action.

The Republican-controlled House held one vote Thursday on the Violence Against Women Act. The chamber had no votes scheduled on Friday. Neither did the Senate.

“I mean, we could stay here … and not pass … a bill,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, as he left the Capitol. “That’s not any better.”

Democratic, GOP alternatives

As expected, a sharply divided Senate voted Thursday afternoon to reject alternative plans put forward by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

Reid’s plan got 51 votes in support while McConnell’s got 38 — well shy of the 60 needed to clear the 100-member chamber.

Reid had proposed replacing the current spending cut package with a $110 billion blueprint that included placing new taxes on millionaires while cutting agriculture subsidies and defense spending. Most Republicans object to new defense cuts and have called any new taxes unacceptable.

McConnell wanted to give Obama more flexibility to pick a set of replacement cuts by March 15. Democrats considered the proposal a trap, designed to put more responsibility for the cuts on Obama’s shoulders. Critics in both parties considered the idea an abdication of Congress’s power of the purse.

Nine Republicans voted against McConnell’s proposal: New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, Maine’s Susan Collins, Texas’s Ted Cruz, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, Nevada’s Dean Heller, Utah’s Mike Lee, Arizona’s John McCain, Kentucky’s Rand Paul and Florida’s Marco Rubio.

Three Democrats opposed Reid’s plan: North Carolina’s Kay Hagan, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and Arkansas’s Mark Pryor.

The same game played out in the House.

Speaker John Boehner referred to two GOP-authored bills the chamber passed last Congress on partisan lines to replace the now-imminent spending cuts.

Democrats dismissed the bills, which had no chance of clearing the Senate or surviving a presidential veto, as ideological showboating. Furthermore, the bills are null for the moment since they didn’t pass the House as presently constituted.

But that didn’t stop Boehner, an Ohio Republican, from trying to put the onus on the Democratic-led Senate.

“We’ve done our work,” he said Thursday morning. Senators have “not done theirs. The House shouldn’t have to pass a third bill to replace the (looming cuts) before the Senate passes one.”

CNN’s Jim Acosta, Ted Barrett, Tom Cohen and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.

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