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Administration Officials, Lawmakers Jockey for Position on Sequester

The nine-letter word “sequester” was treated as a four-letter expletive on the Sunday morning talk shows this week.

While Cabinet officers made dire predictions about the mandatory, across-the-board spending cuts slated to kick in at the end of the week, the Obama administration faced accusations that the onerous effects were being hyped for political purposes in a bid to make congressional Republicans agree to a deal that includes increased revenue.

“I think, first of all, the crisis is made up, it’s been created,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. “I didn’t support the sequester because that’s a stupid way to cut spending, and I didn’t support increasing the debt limit because there is no such thing as a debt limit in this country because we always raise it.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the threat of sequestration is already having an effect on local school districts, which have to plan their budgets for the coming school year next fall.

“There are literally teachers right now getting pink slips,” he said.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has become an administration point man on the harmful effects of sequestration, denied suggestions that the consequences are being exaggerated.

“This sequester is very serious business and it requires us to make all the reductions we have to make,” LaHood said. “We hope that this week that Republicans and Democrats will step forward. The president has put forward a plan to find the $84 billion.”

LaHood said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that his agency is required to cut about $1 billion.

“The largest number of employees at DOT is at FAA, of which the largest number are FAA controllers,” he said. “We’re going to try and cut as much as we possibly can out of contracts and other things that we do. But in the end, there has to be some kind of furlough of air traffic control — air traffic controllers, and that then will also begin to curtail or eliminate the opportunity for them to guide planes in and out of airports.”

LaHood’s case was a reprise of the argument he made Friday at the White House. The law that set up sequestration was structured in a way that gives departments and agencies limited discretion in implementing the required spending cuts. The federal spending curbs are due to begin to take effect March 1, although implementation of the cuts will be phased in over the rest of the fiscal year in many parts of the government.

“The sequester doesn’t allow us to move money around,” LaHood explained on NBC’s Meet the Press.

Many Republicans, including House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers of Michigan, want to enact a patch to increase flexibility.

“It’s really only two-cents on the dollar over the whole federal budget, but they’ve scrunched that down into seven months and highlight, or at least put most of the burden, on the Defense department,” Rogers said on ABC’s This Week, before suggesting that federal officials could find added efficiencies to trim the budget if given the option to do so legally. Coburn made a similar case.

But other Republican lawmakers rejected the idea of giving the administration more flexibility in making the budget cuts.

“I say to my Republican friends, if you want to just give the president flexibility in how to enact these cuts, then why don’t we just go home?” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also appearing on the CNN broadcast. “I am totally against that.”

Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Coburn said the scale of the mandatory spending reductions has been exaggerated and there is plenty of room for cuts.

“We have tons — hundreds of billions of dollars of fat and waste and excess in the federal government and we ought to be about cutting some of it out,” Coburn said.

Speaking on the same program, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., pushed for a big deficit reduction deal to address long-term fiscal issues, but noted that some modifications to implementation of the sequester could be explored in the week ahead.

“I think right now the way this is set up there are going to be cuts in a lot of places, and there will be some flexibility, and I think we’re going to look at a number of things this week,” McCaskill said. “We’ve got a much bigger problem down the line in terms of reducing our debt than just what we face this week.”

Governors from both parties in Washington for National Governor’s Association meetings also made the rounds on Sunday programs to express concern about sequestration on their states and press the case for a deal between Congress and the White House. Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Democratic Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware appeared together on Fox.

“If we’re not careful, a tax increase on one can be a problem and severe cuts on the other end can be a problem,” Walker said, criticizing both parties for kicking the can down the road. “Our hope is between now and March 1, they’ll find a way to provide some better alternatives to the cuts in the sequester.”

Markell said many governors are concerned about the impact of the cuts on the economy.

“You know, I think a lot of us feel like we’re, after some very difficult years, we’re starting to come out of it,” Markell said. “Things are getting a little bit better, and unfortunately the sequester could put us right back where we were.”

Asked if he thought the sequester could lead to another economic recession, Markell replied, “I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.”

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