Little Immediate Impact from Cuts, but Another Showdown Looms

(CNN) - Congress returned to work Monday on the first weekday of forced spending cuts, with President Barack Obama and Republicans sticking to deeply entrenched positions that have caused a series of showdowns manufactured by Washington politics.

Most predicted impacts of the $85 billion in cuts that took effect on Friday -- such as unpaid furloughs for government workers -- won't be evident until April at the earliest, officials say.

But some impacts were already being felt.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters that lines at some airports, including Chicago and Los Angeles, were up to twice as long over the weekend due to budget cuts. She was not clear whether those lines were for customs or security screening, and CNN was not able to confirm the problem.

And local government officials and business leaders in Cody, Wyoming, said Yellowstone National Park will delay the opening of its North and West entrances by a week until April 26, and its East, South and Northeast entrances by two weeks until mid-to-late May due to the impact budget cuts will have on snow removal. The delay will cost related businesses several million dollars, the local Chamber of Commerce said.

Meanwhile, the partisan rhetoric by both sides seeking to cast blame on the other continued unabated, signaling continued political brinksmanship over tax and spending issues beginning with the March 27 deadline for Congress to authorize funding to run the government until the current fiscal year ends on September 30.

House Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican negotiator on fiscal issues, said Sunday he was uncertain if the forced cuts -- known in Washington jargon as sequestration -- would hurt the economy, as predicted by Obama, economists and most Democrats and Republicans.

Boehner argued in a recent op-ed that the cuts would threaten "U.S. national security, thousands of jobs and more." But he told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday that "I don't think anyone quite understands how the sequester is really going to work."

Obama argued at a news conference on Friday -- a few hours before he signed an order implementing the mandatory cuts -- that any resulting harm to the economy would be the fault of GOP intransigence.

"Every time that we get a piece of economic news over the next month, next two months, next six months, as long as the sequester is in place, we'll know that that economic news could have been better," he said.

The two sides remain ideologically opposed on how to reduce the nation's chronic federal deficits and debt.

Republicans seek to shrink the size of government to lower costs, while Democrats argue some new tax revenue is necessary to maintain the social safety net that protects the elderly, disabled and impoverished.

Polls show the public is about as politically divided as its leaders. While most Americans support a deficit reduction plan that includes spending cuts and increased revenue, as well as entitlement reforms, there is little agreement on the formula for such a package.

In addition, a Pew Research Center poll last week showed that a majority of respondents opposed cuts to 18 of 19 specific areas, sending the message that people don't want deficit reduction to hurt them personally.

"The American people want the federal government to reduce spending without touching actual programs," wrote William Galston a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, in a blog post last week. "Is it any wonder that long-term budget cuts have stalled and that even short-term fiscal issues tie Congress up in knots?"

Part of the blame rests with political leaders in Congress and the White House failing to level with the American public about what it will take to "wrestle the federal budget back on a sustainable trajectory for the long term," Galston wrote.

"It's hard to avoid the conclusion that most of today's politicians regard the people with a mixture of fear and contempt: They can't stand the truth, and they'll punish any elected official who utters it," he continued. "When politicians come to believe this, or act as though they do, effective democratic self-government becomes impossible, and temporizing and pandering fill the vacuum the absence of serious governance creates."

Such a vacuum exists now, judging by the repeated brinksmanship over tax and spending issues in recent years that caused a downgrade in the U.S. credit rating and threatened economic recovery.

A series of showdowns has occurred since a conservative wave helped Republicans regain control of the House in the 2010 mid-term elections. Every deadline -- for funding the government, raising the nation's borrowing limit or addressing expiring taxes or tax cuts -- led to protracted wrangling and last-minute agreements.

One of those past agreements -- to increase the debt ceiling in 2011-- included the mandatory spending cuts that cut across all agencies of government but not entitlement programs.

The cuts were intended to be so unpopular that both sides would be motivated to negotiate a broader deficit reduction package rather than let them get implemented. However, the charged political environment of an election year in 2012 prevented such an agreement.

The cuts amount to roughly 9% for a broad range of non-defense programs and 13% for the Pentagon over the remaining seven months of fiscal year 2013.

While both sides oppose the across-the-board nature of the cuts, with no leeway for shifting funds to protect specific targeted programs, conservatives argue the total amount is a manageable slice in federal spending while Democrats say it will cause unnecessary harm.

"We will get through this," Obama said Friday. "This is not going to be an apocalypse as some people have said. It's just dumb and it's going to hurt."

The next deadline is for the continuing resolution, which also could address the forced spending cuts because it involves government spending.

A top question was whether Republicans would try to change the cuts through the government funding measure.

Boehner said Sunday he was "hopeful" for an agreement to prevent a partial government shutdown on March 27, but he provided no details on Republican legislation the House will consider this week to address the issue.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell offered a similar prediction on CNN, saying, "I believe we're going to be able to work out passing the continuing resolution later in March on a bipartisan basis through both the House and the Senate."

In reaction to Boehner's comments, the White House issued a statement that stressed its support for a continuing resolution that is "clean" from unrelated items. It said Congress should act separately to replace the forced spending cuts with alternatives that will be less harmful to the economy.

Obama made clear Friday that the current law requires cuts this fiscal year, which are the first installment of about $1 trillion in spending reductions over the next decade, to be reflected in the continuing resolution to fund the government.

Obama and Democrats insisted that any possible agreement to replace the forced spending cuts with alternative deficit reduction should include more tax revenue from closing loopholes and subsidies that benefit wealthy industries and individuals.

Boehner and Republicans rejected any kind of tax or revenue increase, noting they already agreed to Obama's push to return rates on top income earners to higher levels of the 1990s.

According to GOP leaders, the president and Democrats have yet to propose a serious plan to reduce spending, including costly entitlement programs, on a scale necessary to bring chronic federal deficits and debt under control.

Obama campaigned on increasing the tax burden on the wealthy in winning re-election last year, and he and Democrats contend the vote result showed public support for their position. However, the president's second term has so far included the same kind of congressional dysfunction that dominated his first four years.

In recent weeks, Republicans refused to budge on spending cuts and delayed full Senate consideration of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary before he was eventually confirmed. New political wrangling is also expected over the Obama's nominee to head the CIA.


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