Sequester now certain, but impact unknown

Washington — In largely symbolic moves Thursday, the Senate made one last-ditch effort to avoid sequestration, or automatic spending cuts that will affect most government agencies and many federal programs and services.

Now the sequester will take effect Friday.

But its full impact is under debate — and could determine which party has an edge in future debates over the federal budget.

On Thursday, Republican and Democrats in the Senate put forth bills that would avoid the sequester by cutting the budget in a different way. Both attempts failed.

Now lawmakers will stand back and wait to see who wins the sequester fight.

Many Republicans hope $85 billion in across-the-board cuts — half to the Pentagon –will cause little disruption in the lives of most Americans.

“I’m one who is saying ‘if we can’t dollar for dollar cuts elsewhere, significant cuts, then go forward with the sequester,'” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.

Democrats are betting the sequester has a big impact and angers voters, resulting in a rollback of the budget cuts and giving their party the advantage in future fights over the federal budget.

“It can and should be reversed,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

President Obama, congressional Democrats — including Connecticut’s entire delegation — and many governors like Dannel Malloy, — have focused their energies over the past week on broadcasting what they say are the dire effects of the sequester.

“These dangerous, indiscriminate cuts threaten our economy and vital services for our children, seniors, small businesses, and our service members in uniform,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District.

Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, said sequestration would “have a devastating effect on social services.”

“Let’s not forget that folks in Connecticut and across the Northeast are still recovering from [Hurricane] Sandy,” she said, blaming the GOP for the sequester.  “Folks in Connecticut and across the country can’t afford this gamesmanship.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he wished Congress would stop lurching “from crisis to crisis.”

“I hope once the cuts go into effect people see the damage to the economy and force Republicans to the table,” he said.

In a recent state-by-state report, the White House said sequestration’s effect in Connecticut would be broadly felt.

Among other thing, the report said, there  will be an $8.7 million cut in federal aid to Connecticut’s schools and a loss of 120 teachers and teacher’s aides.

The report also said 500 pre-school children would be taken off the Head Start program in the state and 3,000 civilian Defense Department employees in Connecticut would be furloughed, or forced to go on leave without pay.

Pricey Navy submarine repairs at Electric Boat would be postponed and air traffic at the state’s airport slowed as controllers and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees are furloughed, the Obama administration said.

But the actual effects of the sequester are unknown, because deep across-the-board cuts to the federal budget have never happened before.

There’s evidence the Obama administration has resorted to a bit of hype.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan could not back up his claim teachers are already receiving pink slips because of the looming spending cuts.

And the timing of the furloughs is up to each agency. Many plan to hold off to determine whether the sequester would soon be reversed.

Esty admitted the full impact of the sequester “is a little hard to say right now.”

But supporters of the Pentagon, like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said “the ramifications for the military are going to be severe.”

The worst thing about the sequester, lawmakers agree, is that the agencies have no discretion about what they can and cannot cut. With some exceptions, including entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security and the pay of those serving in the armed forces, cuts will be imposed automatically and evenly on all federal programs.

“I hope that drives us back together,” McCain said.

After falling of the sequester cliff, Congress faces another chasm.

The continuing resolution — or short term spending agreement — that is funding the federal government will expire on March 27.

If Congress does not reach a new agreement before then, agencies won’t be considering furloughs and cuts to federal programs. A total government shutdown would ensue.