As Spending Cuts Loom, Alarm Bells Begin To Sound

Senate Democrats offered an alternative Thursday to the sequester, the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts set to hit March 1.

Despite dire warnings in congressional hearings this week, many on Capitol Hill seem resigned to the sequester.

The Senate Democrats’ plan would temporarily replace the sequester with a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases. The cuts would be shared between defense and domestic spending; the revenue would come mostly from what’s been dubbed the Buffett Rule, which would set an effective tax rate of at least 30 percent for the very wealthiest, no matter the source of their income.

“It comes out to about $108 [billion] or $109 billion,” said Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin as he left a closed-door meeting where the plan was discussed. “It gets us through the end of the year.”

But even before Democrats had a chance to formally announce it, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pre-empted them on the Senate floor, calling the plan a gimmick.

“This is not a solution,” he said. “Even they know it can’t pass. That’s the idea. It’s a political stunt designed to mask the fact that they’ve offered no solutions.”

Earlier this week, McConnell, R-Ky., said it was clear to him the sequester was going to go into effect.

In Yermo, Calif., 2,500 miles away, Marc Jackson is closely watching all of this political back and forth.

“We want the talking to stop,” he says. “We want people to make the decision so we can plan accordingly. It’s time to get on with this.”

Jackson is the superintendent of the Silver Valley Unified School District, located more or less in the middle of nowhere in the Mojave Desert, where federal education dollars play a critical role. He says if the sequester happens, his schools would feel it immediately — and in reality, they are feeling it already.

“We can’t plan appropriately,” he says. “We really don’t know up from down on this. It hurts our ability to recruit teachers. It hurts our ability to work with facilities, and it’s going to hurt the classroom.”

So Jackson says he’s planning for the worst.

Thirty miles away at Fort Irwin, Calif., home to the Army National Training Center, Col. Kurt Pinkerton is planning, too.

Pinkerton is the garrison commander — which makes him like a city manager.

“You’re basically taking care of about 22,000 people here on the installation every day,” he says.

Pinkerton is not quite sure how he’ll keep it all up if he has to furlough civilian staff and break contracts.

“What I’m doing is just prioritizing things,” he says. “From my side, it impacts me on my ability to maintain the city, and then from the operational side, it impacts the ability for these soldiers to go out and train and do what they’ve got to do to … keep their skills honed and ready.”

The picture you get at the macro level about life after sequester is even more alarming. The nation’s top military leaders testified before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

“By the end of the year, there will be a readiness crisis,” said Ashton Carter, the deputy secretary of defense.

“Sequestration will upend our defense strategy. It will put the nation at greater risk of coercion,” added Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

On the domestic side, the Senate Appropriations Committee heard similarly dire warnings Thursday from a number of Cabinet secretaries, as well as Daniel Werfel in the president’s budget office.

“No amount of planning or preparation on our part, no matter how thorough or careful, can mitigate the significant and highly destructive impacts that sequestration would have,” Werfel said.

It seems there’s broad agreement the cuts, at least in their current form, would be harmful. But there’s little agreement on how to avoid them — or even how to talk about avoiding them.

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