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The nuts and bolts of the sequester

Wednesday - 8/8/2012, 2:56am  ET

By DONNA CASSATA
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - Republicans and Democrats are sounding the alarm: The budget sequester is coming and we have to do everything to stop it.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says it will be devastating to the military. Manufacturers say it will mean the loss of tens of thousands of jobs. The White House fears cuts in everything from cancer research to the number of FBI agents.

Some $110 billion in cuts kick in Jan. 2, hitting defense and domestic programs equally hard unless Congress figures out over the next five months a way to avoid the reductions.

"Sequestration is a blunt, indiscriminate instrument designed to force congressional action on achieving a balanced deficit reduction plan," acting Office of Management and Budget Director Jeff Zients told Congress earlier this month. "It is not the responsible way for our nation to achieve deficit reduction."

But increasingly bitter partisanship and election-year politics make a solution unlikely before the November elections, leaving the issue to a jam-packed lame-duck session for Congress. And if Mitt Romney wins the presidency and Republicans capture the Senate, members of Congress could decide on a short-term fix and delay action until next year.

Some key questions and answers about the sequester:

Q: What is sequester?

A: Automatic cuts that are imposed across the board to federal programs, from the Pentagon budget for buying guns, ships and planes to the National Weather Service's equipment for forecasting hurricanes, tornadoes and other severe weather. It's part of the drive to cut the deficit.

Q: How deep are the cuts?

A: The reductions total $1.2 trillion over 10 years. The first-year cuts are $110 billion, split evenly from defense and domestic programs, from a budget of $3.8 trillion. Many programs, however, would be exempt from the cuts.

Q: What programs would be spared?

A: Social Security, Medicaid, supplemental security income, refundable tax credits, the children's health insurance program, the food stamp program and veterans' benefits. The White House said last week that President Barack Obama would exempt military personnel from the cuts.

Q: What about Medicare?

A: The government-run health care program for seniors would face a 2 percent cut in Medicare payments to providers and insurance plans. That works out to a reduction of $11 billion next year.

Q: Who originally came up with sequester?

A: The process was part of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, which set deficit targets. That law stipulated that if spending exceeded the specified targets, a process known as sequester would go into effect. It's often referred to as the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act named for its Senate sponsors _ Phil Gramm, R-Texas; Warren Rudman, R-N.H., and Fritz Hollings, D-S.C.

Q: If sequester is so bad, why would anyone agree to it?

A: It was the default plan when all else failed. Last August, congressional Republicans demanded spending cuts in response to Obama's plea to raise the nation's borrowing authority by $2.1 trillion. As part of the negotiated deal, the two sides agreed on $900 billion in spending cuts and the creation of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. The committee was told to come up with $1.2 trillion more in deficit cuts _ through additional spending cuts, revenue increases or a combination of both _ over a decade. If the bipartisan supercommittee failed, or if Congress rejected the panel's recommendation, the automatic spending cuts would start Jan. 2, 2013. The countdown to the sequester began last November when the supercommittee was unable to reach a consensus on a deficit-cutting plan.

Q: Who backed that deal on the sequester?

A: Plenty of members of Congress_ Republicans and Democrats, committee chairmen, defense hawks, tea party freshmen. The House vote was 269-161, with 174 Republicans backing the Budget Control Act of 2011. Supporters included the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., and the head of the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky. The Senate vote was 74-26, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, supporting the legislation.Obama signed it into law.

Q: What are members of Congress saying now?

A: McKeon says he regrets his vote. In an election-year swipe, Republicans like McCain, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire blame Obama and insist he negotiate with Congress on a new deal to avert the cuts. The three recently traveled to four presidential battleground states _ Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and New Hampshire _ to warn about the devastating impact of the cuts and increase political pressure against them. Graham said he also was disappointed in the GOP for allowing it to happen. "The failure of the supercommittee had to be at least anticipated, and the penalty to put the military at risk, devastating the finest military in our nation's history, is so out of sync with the party of Ronald Reagan. It's disturbing," he said. "We share the blame for this, but at the end of the day we have to fix it."

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