WASHINGTON - A new plan by Senate Democrats to head off severe spending cuts in two weeks met an icy reception from Republicans on Thursday as administration officials stepped forward to lay out the biting consequences that could come if no deal is reached soon: thousands of air traffic controllers sidelined, the on and off idling of meat plants nationwide, slashed food aid and nutrition education for low-income women and children, locked gates at wildlife refuges, 10,000 laid-off teachers, and much more.
As part of their solution to the impasse, Democrats are proposing a minimum tax on the wealthy, a non-starter with the GOP, as well as cuts to much-criticized farm subsidies and more gradual reductions in the Pentagon budget than will happen if the automatic cuts, known as sequester, kick in. Republicans vowed to kill the Democratic legislation encompassing the plan when a vote is called the week of Feb. 25 - just days before the across-the-board cuts would start to slam government operations and the economy.
Release of the plan set off a predictable round of bickering in a capital that remains at a loss over how to prevent the sequester, even as more and more details on the impact of the cuts are being released by panicked agency heads.
"Their whole goal here isn't to solve the problem, it's to have a show vote that's designed to fail, call it a day, and wait for someone else to pick up the pieces," Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said of Democrats. "Well, my message this morning is simple: There won't be any easy off-ramps on this one."
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., called the Democratic measure, with its 50-50 mix of new tax revenue and spending cuts, a "fair and balanced approach" that "protects our country from moving into a very, very fragile position."
The debating points quickly formed.
"Now, Republicans in Congress face a simple choice," said Jay Carney, President Barack Obama's spokesman. "Do they protect investments in education, health care and national defense or do they continue to prioritize and protect tax loopholes that benefit the very few at the expense of middle and working class Americans?"
The automatic sequester cuts that the Democratic bill is trying to avoid would drain $85 billion from the government's budget over the coming seven months, imposing cuts of at least 8 percent cut on the Pentagon and 5 percent on domestic agencies. Medicare payments to doctors would be cut by 2 percent. Actual cuts may be in the order of 13 percent for defense and 9 percent for other programs because lawmakers delayed the impact of the sequester, requiring savings to be achieved in a shorter time.
Administration officials, in testimony to the Senate Appropriations Committee or letters to the panel, gave more shape to what they say is likely to happen absent a breakthrough.
Lawmakers were told 15,000 air traffic controllers would be laid off for more than two weeks, the furloughing of inspectors for up to 15 days would force intermittent closures of meat and poultry plants, a relief fund for disaster victims would lose $1 billion, 70,000 pupils would be removed from the Head Start pre-kindergarten program, and mental health treatment could be denied to more than 373,000 people who need it. More than 3.8 million people out of work six months or longer could see their unemployment benefits reduced by close to 10 percent, and up to 600,000 women would be dropped from the Women, Infants and Children program that gives aid and nutrition education to pregnant and postpartum mothers.
As well, security at U.S. diplomatic installations, incredibly sensitive since the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, would be hampered, as would international peacekeeping operations in Mali and elsewhere and programs combatting terrorism, weapons proliferation and drug trafficking, lawmakers were told as part of a long list detailing the predicted fallout.
To be sure, officials were casting the likely consequences in dire terms, as is always the case when agency budgets are threatened. The sequester law exempts Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps and Medicare recipients' benefits from cuts, and the White House has instructed agencies to give priority to avoiding cuts that "present risks to life, safety or health." But there is no question the cuts would bite deep, and most programs are vulnerable.
The across-the-board cuts would result from the failure of a 2011 deficit "supercommittee" to reach agreement on a deficit reduction plan. The original idea was to make the prospect of sweeping, automatic cuts so severe that Democrats and Republicans would be motivated to strike a budget bargain to head it off.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters on Thursday it's up to Senate Democrats to see if they can pass legislation to replace the sequester with other spending cuts.
"The sequester, I don't like it," he said. "No one should like it. But the sequester is there because the president insisted that it be there. Where's the president's plan to replace the sequester that he insisted upon?"
The Senate bill would forestall the cuts through Dec. 31 and substitute about $110 billion in deficit savings over the coming decade. Almost $1 trillion worth of cuts over the coming eight years would remain in place.
But Republicans oppose the measure because it contains a 10-year, $54 billion tax increase that would require people with million-dollar incomes to pay at least a 30 percent income tax.
What does smaller government look like? The budget standoff between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans means Americans may soon find out, and the picture the Obama administration sketches is downright scary.
Cuts in the Navy's Pacific operations of one-third. Furloughed food inspectors forcing nationwide closures of meat and poultry plants. Ten thousand laid-off teachers. A $1 billion reduction in the relief fund for disaster victims. Less secure airline flights and longer waits on airport security screening lines. Reduced monitoring of air pollution, oil spills and hazardous waste.
All this and more because $85 billion in cuts across most federal programs will be automatically triggered March 1 unless Obama and Republicans do something that's eluded them for months: approve alternative savings.
A look at the fight over the so-called sequester, and what its impact could be:
-State of play: The cuts - plus nearly $1 trillion more over the coming decade - were enacted two years ago in hopes that their sheer ugliness would force the two sides to replace the reductions with a sweeping, bipartisan deficit-reduction deal. So far that's not happened.
The administration has repeatedly warned that the sequester must be avoided. White House budget office controller Daniel L. Werfel told Congress on Thursday that they would have "destructive consequences."
Though many lawmakers of both parties would like to find a way out, conservative Republicans have said they're willing to live with the reductions. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told The Associated Press this week that "we're going to be stuck with it" until Obama proposes a solution that can pass the Democratic-led Senate.
-Overall impact: Administrations past and present always excel at threatening scenarios that make it appear that life as we know it will end. In this case, the law limits the flexibility government officials will have to protect favored programs, but Werfel wrote that the White House has instructed agencies to give priority to avoiding cuts that could "present risks to life, safety or health" and seek other ways to minimize harm to important government services.
The sequester law exempts Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps and Medicare recipients' benefits from cuts, but most programs are vulnerable.
The cuts were expected to mean reductions this year of 8 percent in defense and 5 percent in nondefense programs. But because lawmakers recently delayed the impact until March 1 - meaning they will affect only the last seven months of the government's budget year - the sequester will force deeper reductions of 13 percent for defense and 9 percent for other programs.
-Defense: The Defense Department announced last week that because of the cuts it is withdrawing one of its two aircraft carriers from the Persian Gulf region, but there's more coming.
The Navy's top officer, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, told Congress that because of the sequester and already planned long-range reductions, the Navy could not fully support counterterrorism operations in Somalia and Yemen. A letter the Pentagon sent to Congress this week says the military will protect operations for ongoing wars, but expects to curtail maintenance of aircraft and ships, reduce training and maintenance for some Army units and cut Air Force flying hours. There would probably be a freeze in hiring civilians, instead of the 1,500 to 2,000 new jobs monthly. Current civilian workers could be furloughed up to 22 days. And the military's Tricare health care system could lose $3 billion, threatening elective care for some military dependents and retirees.
-Homeland Security: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano wrote to Congress that there will be fewer border agents and fewer facilities for detained illegal immigrants. There would be reduced Coast Guard air and sea operations, furloughed Secret Service agents and weakened efforts to detect cyberthreats to computer networks. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund would lose more than $1 billion. "We do not have the luxury of making significant reductions to our capabilities without placing our nation at risk," Napolitano wrote.
-Education: Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Congress that 70,000 Head Start pupils would be removed from the pre-kindergarten program, about 1 of every 13. Duncan warned those cuts would mean layoffs of 10,000 teachers and thousands of other staffers because of cuts in federal dollars that state and local governments use for schools. Cuts for programs for handicapped and other special needs students would threaten 7,200 teachers and aides, he said.
-Health: The National Institutes of Health would lose $1.6 billion, trimming research on cancer, drying up money for hundreds of other research projects and eliminating up 20,000 private research positions nationwide. Health departments would give 424,000 fewer tests for the AIDS virus this year. More than 373,000 seriously ill people may not receive needed mental health services.
-Transportation: The Federal Aviation Administration plans to furlough most of its 47,000 employees, including air traffic controllers, for an average of 11 days, with most furloughs probably over the summer. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told employees in a letter this week that while the furloughs can be managed safely, "We might see travel delays and disruptions during the critical summer travel season."
-Environment: Cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency would jeopardize its ability to protect the public from oil spills, air pollution and hazardous waste, according a letter from Bob Perciasepe, who becomes interim head of the agency on Friday until a replacement is named. States would have to shut down some pollution monitors that determine if air is healthy to breathe. The popular color-coded air quality forecasting system that keeps schoolchildren and others inside on bad-air days would be curtailed or eliminated.
The EPA, which already inspects only a tiny fraction of facilities with the potential to spill oil, would do even less. New models of cars and trucks could be delayed from getting to dealership lots because the EPA couldn't quickly validate that they meet emissions standards.
-Internal Revenue Service: A Treasury Department letter to Congress said the IRS would review fewer tax returns, which "could result in billions of dollars in lost revenue." The agency offered no specifics but said each $1 spent on the IRS has meant at least $4 in additional revenue.
-Agriculture: The Agriculture Department says meat inspectors could be furloughed up to 15 days, shutting meatpacking plants intermittently and costing up to $10 billion in production losses and $400 million in lost wages. The Food and Drug Administration would conduct 2,100 fewer food facility inspections this year. About 600,000 low-income pregnant women and new mothers would lose food aid and nutrition education.
-FBI: FBI Director Robert Mueller wrote to Congress that sequestration would be the equivalent of cutting 2,285 employees, including 775 agents, through furloughs and a hiring freeze. Every FBI employee would be furloughed for 14 workdays.
- Interior Department: The department says it is preparing to reduce hours and services at all 398 national parks and might close up to 128 wildlife refuges. As much as $200 million in direct payments to states, mainly the West, could be eliminated. The cuts could force local governments to cut back on police and fire protection, schools, road maintenance and more.
-Labor: More than 3.8 million people jobless for six months or longer could see their unemployment benefits reduced by as much as 9.4 percent. Thousands of veterans would not receive job counseling. Fewer Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors could mean 1,200 fewer inspections of dangerous work sites. There would be fewer investigations into complaints workers are being denied minimum wage and overtime pay. About 1 million fewer people would get help finding or preparing for new jobs.
-NASA: Nearly $900 million in cuts would come from programs including money to help private companies build crew capsules to eventually send astronauts to the International Space Station, and to test new technologies for sending astronauts into deep space.
-Housing: The Department of Housing and Urban Development said about 125,000 households could lose benefits from the agency's Housing Choice Voucher program and risk becoming homeless. The vouchers are the federal government's major program to assist low-income families, the elderly and the disabled.