Obama has some options to soften pain from ‘sequester’ cuts

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Despite President Obama’s dire warnings of “brutal” budget slashing if automatic spending cuts hit March 1, federal agencies do have some wiggle room to soften the brunt of the cuts.

Budget analysts say the government can take steps to postpone the impact of the so-called sequester budget cuts — such as delaying the announcement of new contracts, not filling open positions and delaying the announcement of new federal grants — that would not affect vital government services in the short term.

As the deadline approaches, President Obama on Thursday telephoned House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, to sound them out about a last-minute solution. McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said the outreach was Mr. Obama’s first since New Year’s Eve.

The White House refused to reveal the details or even the premise of the call.

“[Mr. Obama] placed calls earlier today to Senator McConnell and Speaker Boehner, had good conversations, but I have no further readout of those calls for you,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Thursday during his daily briefing.

Asked specifically if the president was calling them to suggest a compromise, Mr. Carney declined to answer.

While both sides have expressed interest in averting at least some of the automatic cuts, the administration does have the flexibility to shift some money around if the sequester goes into effect.

Patrick Lester, director of fiscal policy at the nonprofit Center for Effective Government in Washington, wrote a report in November that detailed many options for the government to lessen the full impact of the mandatory cuts for several weeks, options that some Republicans now say Mr. Obama deliberately is choosing not to exercise.

“The president and his administration can, if they choose, manage and mitigate the impact of a short-term sequester,” he wrote.

But in an interview Thursday, Mr. Lester cautioned that some of the options open to the administration are less desirable now because more time has passed in the current fiscal year, reducing some of the flexibility to postpone the impact of cuts.

“It’s a mixed bag,” Mr. Lester said. “Some of the those [choices] continue to be operable, but you have less time to play with.”

The $85 billion in cuts that could begin next week are the first part of $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction that Mr. Obama and Congress agreed on two years ago. This week, Mr. Obama is waging a public-relations campaign to pressure congressional Republicans to avoid the worst of the cuts and raise more tax revenue. He argues that the automatic cuts will harm the economy and throw hundreds of thousands of people out of work.

Rep. Tom Price, Georgia Republican, said Mr. Obama and other Democrats are engaged in fear-mongering.

“Rather than working cooperatively with Republicans, the president and Washington Democrats are focused on stoking fear among the American people — exploiting our military and other vital services — to promote an agenda of tax hikes to chase ever higher spending,” Mr. Price said.

He said sequestration is an “imperfect” way to cut the budget, but the need for deficit reduction can’t be ignored.

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