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New Washington showdown emerges over funding

By Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 5:46 PM EST, Tue March 5, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: FAA to close control towers at some small- and medium-sized airports
  • NEW: White House cancels tours to cut costs
  • Congress must authorize continued government funding by March 27
  • Both sides say they don't want a partial government shutdown

Washington (CNN) -- To no one's surprise, the next Washington political showdown reared its partisan head on Tuesday.

Some House Democrats rejected a GOP proposal intended to fund the government through September while maintaining the forced spending cuts that took effect last week but softening their impact.

Failure by Congress to approve a government funding measure, known as a continuing resolution, could cause a partial shutdown when current funding authorization expires on March 27.

While The White House and congressional leaders signaled they don't want another fiscal crisis over keeping the government funded like the ones that dominated President Barack Obama's first term, an administration policy statement indicated the battle over the forced spending cuts will continue.

Meanwhile, a new poll indicated the impasse over spending cuts could be hurting Obama and Democrats, but not necessarily helping Republicans.

The mandatory, across-the-board cuts to defense and other discretionary government spending -- but not entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare -- occurred after Obama and Congress were unable to work out a compromise to replace or avert them.

They 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 government-wide nature of the cuts, with no leeway for shifting funds to protect specific programs, conservatives argue the total amount is a manageable slice in spending while Democrats say it will cause unnecessary harm.

The harshest impacts won't be evident until April at the earliest, but economists and leaders of both parties warn the $85 billion in cuts through fiscal year 2013 will slow the economy and cause pain for many Americans.

On Tuesday, the Federal Aviation Administration notified control tower operators that 173 of the air traffic towers at small- and medium-sized airports would close on April 7 because of the forced spending cuts, known in Washington jargon as sequestration.

The towers operated by contractors instead of FAA employees account for less than 6% of commercial airline operations, and closing them would not necessarily result in airport closures.

A more immediate impact came on Tuesday when the White House announced it was canceling all tours effective this Saturday and until further notice to cut costs.

"Unfortunately, we will not be able to reschedule affected tours," the White House said.

Republicans complain the Obama administration has tried to manipulate the spending cuts to generate public outrage instead of making a good faith effort to implement them in the most effective and least harmful manner possible.

White House spokesman Jay Carney responded to such criticism Tuesday, saying he found it "remarkable that those who weeks ago and certainly months ago were decrying sequester as the worst possible thing that could happen now embrace it as a victory."

Last week, the Army sent the first furlough notices for government employees due to the mandatory cuts.

The notices warned unions that workers at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Gunpowder, Maryland, as well as the Corps of Engineers in Walla Walla, Washington, will be forced to stay home without pay one day each week from April 22 through Sept. 21.

That translates to a 20% pay cut for five months, the kind of economic hit that Obama and others have warned will harm the nation's still sluggish recovery from recession.

Other impacts outlined by government officials include reduced staffing at airport customs and security checkpoints, resulting in longer lines; a later opening for gates at Yellowstone National Park because of delayed snow plowing to save money, and job cuts at some schools.

Susan Smit, a superintendent in Wagner, South Dakota, told an education conference on Monday that her district reduced health benefits and did not re-hire some staff members in anticipation of the reduced federal funding.

In addition, military leaders say force readiness will decline if the full impact of sequester -- totaling about $1 trillion over 10 years -- were to take effect.

On Tuesday, the commander of U.S. special operations forces told a congressional committee that the spending cuts and the pending need to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year would mean less money for the military.

Adm. William McRaven, who heads the U.S. Special Operations Command, said a new continuing resolution might revert to 2012 spending levels, which would be $1.5 billion less than what was planned for 2013.

On top of that would be an additional $900 million in cuts due to sequestration, resulting in "about a 23% cut from Southern Command's available resources," McRaven said.

"I think I can manage that with the resources we have," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "But we are beginning to create a readiness problem if we don't resolve the (continuing resolution) and/or have an opportunity to manage the sequestration money because I am already cutting 60% of my flying hours back" in the continental United States, as well as reducing future deployments.

He described the situation as "kind of a perfect storm of fiscal problem for us."

The forced spending cuts were part of a 2011 law that increased the nation's borrowing limit. They were intended to be a fiscal cudgel to inspire legislators to compromise on a comprehensive plan to reduce the nation's chronic federal deficits and debt.

However, election-year politics prevented such a compromise, leading to the so-called fiscal cliff at the end of 2012 that resulted in an agreement to stave off pending tax increases for most Americans while allowing rates on top income earners to return to higher levels of the 1990s.

The forced spending cuts set to take effect on January 1 were put off until March 1, and the continuing rift over taxes and spending between Democrats and Republicans prevented a deal to avoid their implementation last Friday.

Now, both sides are seeking to gain a political advantage over the recurring impasse.

"This is no way to run a government but until the president gets serious about the serious structural spending problem that we have, we're gonna have to deal with it," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday.

The Republican-led House is taking up a GOP-proposed continuing resolution this week, Boehner noted, calling on the Democratic-led Senate to act on it quickly to prevent a government shutdown.

Under the proposed continuing resolution unveiled Monday by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, total government spending for the fiscal year would adhere to the figure negotiated by Obama and Congress minus the cuts.

The proposal would allow Pentagon officials to shift funding to protect top priority programs, and also include provisions to maintain FBI and border security spending.

In addition, it includes some political issues, such as prohibiting any spending for transferring terrorism suspects from the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility or for renovating a mainland prison to accept such detainees.

OMB outline of spending cuts

The first response from House Democrats signaled opposition, arguing the Republican measure would further codify the sequester cuts in spending for this year.

"They're happy this is happening," said Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-New York. "You know, if you want to take ownership of it, this is a good way of taking ownership of the sequester, in my opinion. My intention is to vote 'no.'"

However, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Carney said Tuesday that the funding levels of the House GOP proposal were acceptable.

Reid and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky both said they expected Democrats to make some changes to the House GOP plan, but they expressed optimism that Congress would pass a continuing resolution to prevent any kind of government shutdown.

Later, an administration policy statement expressed openness to negotiating with Republicans on the continuing resolution, but made clear the White House will continue fighting to replace the forced cuts with a package of more tax revenue from closed loopholes and alternative spending reductions.

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

Spending cuts: When they'll really bite

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.

Shame and blame: Why Washington needs couples therapy

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.

A CBS News poll Monday showed that more Americans blame Republicans in Congress than Obama and Democrats for the failure to avert the forced spending cuts, but the gap between the two has narrowed compared to earlier polls by other organizations.

According to the survey, 38% blame congressional Republicans and 33% blame Obama and congressional Democrats, with 19% blaming both. Despite the narrowing gap, the results showed a continued negative perception of Republicans.

Teachers: How will you be affected?

Darrell West, the vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said Republicans "have some good cards to play in this debate." After last year's election campaign, in which the main GOP message was to repeal whatever Obama did, Republicans were now "being more strategic in how they're approaching the budget."

"As opposed to saying no to everything, they are picking and choosing their fights," West told CNN.

Delays in opening Yellowstone

To Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University, Obama's campaign-style efforts in recent weeks to blame Republicans for the forced spending cuts and inspire public outrage over them proved to be ineffective and misplaced.

"When people can't see the damage, they don't worry about the damage," Schiller told CNN, later adding: "Americans did not re-elect President Obama to play the partisan blame game; they re-elected him to run the country, and that is what he should be doing."

Obama's press conference on spending cuts

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