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Sequester Without The Politics


It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee.

Coming up, why women are still struggling for equality in the workplace, the latest submissions from our Three-Minute Fiction contest and an interview with a mysterious band, Rhye. But first...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Who's afraid of the big bad sequester?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The sequester...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Obama sequestration...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Sequestration.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Some sequestration.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I don't like the sequester.


BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Sequestered days.

HEADLEE: We knew it was coming if Washington couldn't reach a compromise, and they didn't, so it's here. The sequestration, the automatic across-the-board spending cuts totaling 85 billion for this year that will be evenly split between defense and domestic spending. President Obama held a tense press conference yesterday afternoon.

OBAMA: I am not a dictator. I'm the president. So ultimately, if Mitch McConnell or John Boehner say we need to go to catch a plane, I can't have Secret Service block the doorway.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: Let's make it clear that the president got his tax hikes on January 1st. This discussion about revenue, in my view, is over.

HEADLEE: That's Speaker of the House John Boehner. One of the few things that everyone agrees with on Capitol Hill is that the sequestration is a wholly political creation, a manufactured crisis invented by politicians to scare them into negotiating. So let's begin by explaining the politics with Mara Liasson. She's NPR's national political correspondent. Hi, Mara.


HEADLEE: So here we are at the place that we all thought we wouldn't get to. Did the president miscalculate?

LIASSON: Yes, the president did miscalculate. Plan A was to warn the country about the dire effects of sequestration, and he expected the same thing to happen as happened with the debt ceiling that there would be outside pressure on Republicans to avoid the terrible consequences of sequester and replace it with a mix of spending cuts and revenue hikes that the president wanted. That didn't work out.

Now he's back to plan B, which is to blame Republicans for whatever pain there might be from the sequester, but that may take weeks or even months for the sequester to go into effect and for people to feel it and then for people to react.

HEADLEE: Why didn't that work? I mean, I imagine a lot of people agreed with the president that if - once we got close to this deadline, because these cuts were so draconian and so many programs that nobody wanted to see cut, that people would sit down. Why didn't that happen?

LIASSON: Well, polls show that the sequester is still pretty abstract. To a lot of Americans, they haven't felt it. They don't know exactly how it's going to feel, even though they've heard a lot from the White House about what will happen. And this isn't like the debt ceiling. Everybody understood what defaulting on United States obligations meant, and the financial markets were very upset about that. And they put pressure on Republicans. With the exception of the defense industry, there really hasn't been a lot of outside pressure. And there are also political dynamics at work.

The Republicans were humiliated at the end of the year. They had to agree to a tax-hike-only bill in the fiscal cliff negotiations. And Speaker Boehner even promised many of his conservative members that they would get theirs. They would get their spending cuts, and the sequester is the vehicle for that. So there's a feeling that the Republicans have to have the sequester to kind of level the playing field politically. The president got his tax hikes. Now they're going to get some spending cuts.

HEADLEE: But, you know, this whole thing is pretty disheartening to people who are hoping for better working relationship in Washington. Obama, as you say, is blaming the GOP, saying they won't negotiate. The Republicans say it's the president that's dug in his heels. What clues are we getting here about how business will actually be conducted or if it will during Obama's second term?

LIASSON: Well, believe it or not, things are returning to regular order, which we haven't seen for many years. There's a lot of dysfunction, there's tremendous partisan gridlock. But let's talk about what's going to happen next. The next fiscal crisis would be the expiration of the continuing resolution. That's the stopgap funding bill that is keeping the government open until the end of March. Both sides say they don't want a government shutdown. In other words, they're not going to play chicken with the continuing resolution.

So they're going to extend it. They're going to extend it for the rest of the year. Then you're going to have both sides' budget plans put on the table. That hasn't happened since 2009. Remember, the Senate hasn't passed a budget since 2009. The House will have a budget. The Senate Democrats will have a budget, and the president will have a budget. And then maybe they can have a negotiation about their respective tax and spending plans for the next 10 years.

HEADLEE: I think a lot of people have forgotten at this point that it all started, the whole sequester cuts, this whole thing began as an attempt just to reduce the deficit. So does this at least accomplish that? I mean, will the deficit go down once these cuts are implemented?

LIASSON: Not by very much, and that's one of the most ridiculous aspects of this entire ridiculous exercise. The real drivers of the deficit - Medicare, Medicaid, mandatory programs - they are not touched by the sequester, and they're over 50 percent of the federal budget this year if you count interest on the debt. And the sequester has absolutely nothing to do with that.

So if the two sides are going to attack the true drivers of the deficit, the only way to do that is to come back to that ever elusive grand bargain. That's the big deal where Republicans agree to some kind of revenue hikes and Democrats agree to entitlement cuts. That seems impossible. But maybe now when the political playing field is leveled, both sides will have exhausted every other possible way to avoid this and finally get into some negotiations.

HEADLEE: And the chances that that could happen before America really begins to feel these cuts?

LIASSON: I think unlikely. I think the Americans are going to have to really feel the cuts before grand bargain talks could begin again.

HEADLEE: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Sadly, although these spending cuts were dreamed up behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, the effects will be felt almost everywhere in America, except in lawmaker's paychecks. To help you best understand what's happening and why you should care, we reached out to some of the people who get hit first by furloughs and budget cuts.

LANA DWYER: My name is Lana Dwyer(ph). I am a third year student at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. And I'm majoring in world history. I wasn't sure before I started college what I wanted to do, but since I've gotten really into the teaching assistant job, I've seen the impact it has on students. I've actually been thinking about going into a master's in education.

HEADLEE: But Dwyer is having to rethink her plans for the future since one of the programs that will immediately get the chop is federal work study.

DWYER: I definitely depend on my work study a lot just for being able to buy my books for the following semester.

HEADLEE: Also, first in line for furloughs are employees of the Defense Department, like Chris Field(ph), a training officer at Fort Meade who's facing the grim prospect of losing 22 days of pay.

CHRIS FIELD: I mean, it's not so much fun to think about, you know, losing 20 percent of your paycheck. You know, my daughter is getting ready to go to college, and I have to start thinking about, you know, how that's going to happen with 20 percent less money. And, you know, I jokingly told her like, hey, start looking at colleges that are 20 percent cheaper. But, you know, in reality, you know, you kind of do what you have to do to get your kids, you know, onto school and moving into the next, you know, next part of their lives.

HEADLEE: But you don't have to be working for the government to feel the pain from these cuts. According to the White House, 70,000 low-income kids will have to leave the Head Start program, 125,000 families will lose rental assistance and nutrition programs will lose millions in funding as well.

SHARON BAUGHMAN: I'm Sharon Baughman. I'm the CEO of Christian Senior Services. And Christian Senior Services is the Meals on Wheels provider for Bexar County in Central Texas. San Antonio is our main city.

HEADLEE: Baughman's staff provides about 3,700 meals a day for Texans in need.

BAUGHMAN: Our problem is that we have so many seniors that are more and more needy that we are getting calls - we get probably 200 new calls a month from people who need home-delivered meals. And keep in mind that the people who are eligible for home-delivered meals are basically what we call homebound. They are not able to, on a reliable basis, shop, cook and ensure that they have a healthy course of food on a regular basis.

We have several clients over the age of 100 that are continuing to live at home specifically because they are able to count on Meals on Wheels for their nutrition. So if you talk, say, 8 percent cut, that's literally hundreds of seniors that we would not be able to take care of as a result of those reductions.

HEADLEE: Baughman hasn't informed her clients about the cuts yet. She was holding out hope that lawmakers would reach a deal before she had to make a decision about who she can feed and who she can't.

BAUGHMAN: It's very hard to sit down and take a pencil and say these seniors should be on a program and these shouldn't be because they're all very needy.

HEADLEE: At this point, though, the real effects of these cuts is unclear. I asked NPR's congressional correspondent Tamara Keith what to expect come Monday.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Doors will open, lights will turn on, everyone will report for work. I actually saw a memo sent to one agency where they reminded employees that, in fact, they do have to come to work on Monday. Because you have to think of this more like a brownout than a blackout. You know, there's no breaker getting switched, the lights are just flickering. So on Monday, many federal employees are likely to get furlough notices. These are notices saying that in 30 days, furloughs could begin.

Other agencies are instituting hiring freezes or not replacing people who leave or retire. And actually, the most immediate effects will be on those who receive money directly from the government. So low-income housing programs, the food program for Women, Infants and Children, WIC, that's going to be cut by $333 million this year - farm loans, schools that get impact aid funding.

HEADLEE: NPR's Tamara Keith.

Since the furloughs won't begin for 30 days, there's still time for Congress to reach a grand bargain before the spending cuts have to be fully implemented. And Sharon Baughman says that's exactly what they need to do.

BAUGHMAN: I have a budget. Everyone has a personal budget, everyone has a work budget. But I never would sit down and say we're going to cut everything by the same percentage. You look at programs, you look at, you know, where the money's going and you just really do your best to figure it out. And I think they just have to be grown-ups about it and sit down with both parties and the White House and just make the right decision.

HEADLEE: Sharon Baughman is the CEO of Christian Senior Services, the Meals on Wheels provider for San Antonio, Texas.


HOLIDAY: (Singing) Yesterdays, yesterdays. Days are new as happy sweet. Sequestered days. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.