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Lawmakers Say Sequester Replacement Plan Slipping to Late March

Even as they blame one another for automatic spending cuts set to take effect March 1, key lawmakers on both sides believe the best chance for a bipartisan deal to restructure the sequester will come by the end of March.

“The best time to redesign the automatic spending cuts will come with the [expiration of the] continuing resolution on March 27,” said Republican Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, chairman of the Joint Economic Committee. “The cuts will occur on March 1. Then there will be a fight in the CR over the design.”

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., said he believes a deal to restructure the spending cuts could be worked out as part of a continuing resolution carrying government funding through the rest of the fiscal year.

“It’s not a cliff that you fall off,” Cardin said of the automatic, across-the-board cuts. “That doesn’t happen on March 1. But there is pain on March 1.”

The flexibility on timing of a compromise stands in contrast to the public narrative both parties are weaving on the sequester, which targets the March 1 trigger date for the onset of $85 billion in draconian spending cuts. Each side is blaming the other party for the impasse in negotiations to reshape the plan they both agreed to in the 2011 deal (PL 112-25).

Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and his team stood in front of a podium emblazoned with Twitter hashtag #Obamaquester on Wednesday, while a digital clock loomed behind them, ticking off the 15 1/2 days until the deadline.

“I would hope that it wouldn’t happen. I’ve made that perfectly clear. The sequester is bad policy. It’s taking a meat-ax approach to government spending. That’s why the president ought to be forthcoming with a plan to replace his own sequester,” Boehner said.

The White House and senior Democrats volley back that spending cuts were designed to mollify the GOP and settle the 2011 showdown over raising the debt limit.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Tuesday that Boehner had thrown “the ball in Democrats’ court to find a way out of what he called ‘the president’s sequester.’”

“One hundred and seventy-four Republican House members voted for this; 28 Republican senators voted for this. This is not the president’s sequester,” Reid said.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland said the GOP is being pushed by a conservative faction that is “so zealous” in its bid to reduce the size of government “that it has embraced the draconian cuts.”

Resolution Expiring

But key players on both sides say they believe the deadline is flexible because agencies can adjust their operations to deal with cuts over the short term and that Congress could reverse or reduce the cuts even after sequestration begins.

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas and several lawmakers in both parties said this week that the true deadline for negotiations is later in March.

“I think what’s going to happen is the sequester is going to go into effect. And then the serious negotiations will probably start,” Cornyn said.

The hard deadline for reaching a deal will be March 27, the expiration date of the continuing resolution (PL 112-178), some lawmakers said.

“There’s about a month between the sequester and the CR. You’ve got a little bit of time,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla, said.

In the Senate, Reid has made clear he plans to unveil his own $120 billion sequester replacement package Thursday, with an evenly divided mix of spending cut and tax hikes to offset the automatic cuts. And he has said he will put the measure on the floor early in the week of Feb. 25. But Reid also has signaled there is plenty of leeway after March 1 to complete final action on a sequester alternative.

Boehner reiterated on Wednesday that he did not plan to move a House GOP sequester replacement plan, while emphasizing that the House had passed its own alternative roster of spending cuts to head off the sequester in December.

Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, an adviser to Reid on his sequester substitute, said she remains focused on the March 1 deadline, however, and has scheduled a hearing Thursday to examine the potential effects of federal worker furloughs.

“That’s in the law. On March 1, the sequester is triggered,” Mikulski said. “I don’t deal in theories. I deal in the laws. Theories are for physicists.”

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