- Congress is unlikely to act before automatic spending cuts kick in March 1
- The cuts will be phased in over time and can be changed later on
- Democrats and Republicans are blaming each other instead of working on alternatives
If you're expecting last minute action from Congress to avoid the March 1 spending cut deadline, think again.
Congress isn't even in session this week, and lawmakers and aides from both parties say they don't expect anything to pass anytime soon.
Why the lack of urgency?
The cuts can be phased in over time, and leaders on both sides of the aisle know they can act after March 1 to undo any reductions in the months to come. Also, some Democrats and Republicans aren't totally unhappy with many of the cuts, $85 billion of which will be split between Pentagon and non-defense programs this year.
Many of the most popular domestic programs, including Medicare and Medicaid benefits, are off the table.
With no sharp, irreversible deadline in the offing, all you're likely to get over the next 10 days is an extended version of the partisan blame game. True to form, President Barack Obama and GOP leaders ratcheted up their rhetoric on Tuesday.
"Republicans in Congress face a simple choice," Obama said at a White House event with first responders. "Are they willing to compromise, to protect vital investments in education and healthcare and national security and all the jobs that depend on them? Or would they rather put hundreds of thousands of jobs and our entire economy at risk just to protect a few special interest tax loopholes that benefit only the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations?"
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, urged Republicans to "listen to the overwhelming majority of Americans and work with Democrats to forge a balanced approach" to deficit reduction that includes new tax hikes on the wealthy.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, responded to barbs from Democrats with a written statement placing the blame squarely on the president.
"The House has twice passed legislation to replace it with commonsense cuts and reforms that won't threaten public safety, national security, or our economy," the speaker said, referring to measures passed by the GOP-controlled chamber last year.
"But once again, the president (has) offered no credible plan that can pass Congress -- only more calls for higher taxes," Boehner said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said Obama "prefers campaign events to common sense, bipartisan action."
Republicans argue they've already ceded on higher taxes by allowing Bush-era tax cuts to expire on the wealthiest Americans as part of the New Year's Eve "fiscal cliff" deal.
GOP leaders insist that any package replacing this year's planned $85 billion in cuts -- part of $1.2 trillion in savings over 10 years -- must be comprised entirely of alternative spending reductions, including entitlement reform.
Republicans are particularly concerned about the looming defense cuts.
"Even though defense accounts for 17 (or) 18% of our spending, they've taken half of the savings out of the military," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-California, told CNN. "The troops that are over there fighting to protect our freedoms around the world are being cut. The things that they need are being cut."
Senate Democrats and Republicans are expected to propose alternative bills next week to replace the automatic cuts.
Neither plan is likely to get the 60 votes necessary for approval in the 100-member chamber -- thereby setting the stage for more serious talks after March 1.
"There won't be any easy off-ramps on this one," McConnell said last week. "The days of 11th hour negotiations are over."
Brown University political scientist Wendy Schiller, who studies presidential and congressional politics, noted that March 27 -- the date when the current government funding authority expires -- is an ideal point for Congress to alter its current spending plans.
"The upside to the (current package of planned cuts) is that it gives both parties political cover to make a dent in federal spending," Schiller told CNN. "The downside is that the cuts themselves are not directly targeted at inefficiency, fraud or waste, and will ultimately affect voters' daily lives in some way."
Ultimately, she predicted, Congress will be "the big loser. ... If history tells us anything about showdowns between Congress and the president, it tells us the president wins. And only one branch will face the voters again -- Congress."