By Leo Shane III , Chris Carroll , Joyce Tsai
By noon Friday, all that was left was for President Barack Obama to sign the official order arbitrarily slashing government departments and programs.
The automatic spending cuts known as sequestration will reduce the federal budget by $85 billion, including $46 billion from the Pentagon, by the time the fiscal year ends in September. Lawmakers mandated the threat of punishing, across-the-board cuts in 2011 to force compromise on deficit reduction.
But compromise appears beyond the reach of the U.S. government now.
After months of promising the cuts would be averted, Obama admitted defeat Friday, telling reporters that an hourlong meeting with congressional leaders produced the same partisan stalemate that has plagued the debate from the start. “A series of dumb, arbitrary cuts” that both sides had hoped to avoid was inevitable.
“The good news is that the American people are strong and resilient,” he said. “Not everyone will feel the pain of these cuts right away, but the pain will be real.”
He reiterated the dire predictions of what the mandatory budget reductions will mean to American households: education cuts, reduced support services, furloughs, layoffs, economic stagnation. He warned the country to expect “a slow grind that worsens every day.”
Military leaders have painted a grim picture as well, saying that immediate cuts in training and maintenance would snowball over several months to create gaps in military readiness by summer.
For military civilians, sequestration sets in motion one-day-a-week furloughs starting in April, resulting in a month of lost pay by the end of September. Pay for military troops is exempt from sequestration, but top leaders at the Pentagon have warned the reduced budget could spur end strength cuts beyond those already planned.
With sequestration a reality, the president shifted his message.
He said he still believes there is a “caucus of common sense” on Capitol Hill, lawmakers from both parties who can come together on a mixture of budget cuts and tax increases. He said he hopes a compromise can still be reached in coming months, before the negative effects become crippling.
In coming weeks, with the developing effects of sequestration as a backdrop, lawmakers will begin to tackle a permanent budget for the half-completed 2013 fiscal year, the budget for the 2014 fiscal year and the long-term solutions to the national debt.
Obama said he is hopeful that Democrats and Republicans can work together.
“Sometimes we get to these bottlenecks, and we get stuck … but the American people are practical,” he said. “Eventually, that common sense approach wins out.
“Sequestration, we will get through this. This is not going to be an apocalypse. It’s just dumb.”
Congressional Republicans on Friday blasted Obama for not doing enough to avert the fiscal crisis.
“I have never in my lifetime seen such a lack of leadership and truth-telling emanating from our White House and Commander-in-Chief,” said House Armed Services Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif. “Sequestration was the president’s idea.”
The Defense Department, McKeon said, has shouldered more than its fair share of cuts.
“We are done cutting our defense … we are telling the president and John Boehner: ‘Don’t plan on cutting our national defense one more cent.’”
Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee chairman, accused the president of calling Congressional leaders to the White House Friday morning as “props.”
“Today the sequester, which the president said and promised the American people would not happen, will happen,” Turner said. “This did not need to happen …The president has simply not turned in his homework.”
But despite the dropping military budget, the sky is not falling on the Pentagon, military budget experts said Friday.
Implementing the cuts will be “messy,” the analysts said, but will still leave a military able to do its job and far outclassing any potential challengers.
Sequestration and other spending controls will result in reductions proportionally much smaller than those after Vietnam and the Cold War, said Todd Harrison, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.
“This is relatively mild compared to some previous drawdowns of defense spending,” he said during a conference call with the media. Military leaders have been presenting a worst-case scenario in recent weeks as they laid out potential damage from sequestration, said Gordon Adams, an American University professor and distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.
Although the Pentagon can’t shift money between spending accounts – for example, moving money between the Army operations account and the Navy operations account – there is latitude within individual accounts to set priorities, he said.
“They have not provided any analysis about the tradeoffs that have been made,” he said. “They are simply providing the horrendous horror stories.”