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.
"In an era of trillion-dollar deficits and long-term economic uncertainty, responsibly reducing spending is absolutely necessary," Mr. Price said. "President Obama ought to stop putting false choices before the American people, when they are demanding meaningful and lasting reductions in the level of spending, so that we can get our economy rolling and more jobs created."
A new poll suggests the public is not sharing the same level of alarm as Mr. Obama about the pending cuts. A survey by the Pew Research Center found that 29 percent of Americans have never heard of the sequester, and a full 40 percent believe the cuts should be allowed to go into effect. But a greater share, 49 percent, say the cuts should be delayed.
Democratic strategist James Carville said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that if the cuts do take effect, Republicans are likely to get most of the blame.
"The sequester, not many people know what it is, but it sounds stupid and cruel," Mr. Carville said. "Therefore, people think it's a Republican thing."
Among the government programs exempt from the sequester cuts are Social Security benefits (old-age, survivors and disability); all programs administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs; military personnel spending; interest on the federal debt; refundable tax credits; and many low-income programs, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamps, child nutrition programs, mandatory funding under the Child Care and Development Fund, Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, foster care and the Supplemental Security Income program.
Some budget analysts say the administration's options for imposing the cuts are limited.
"From my read of the legislation, they have little [discretion]," said Patrick Knudsen, a budget expert at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation. "The president can prevent a pay cut for military personnel, but other than that, it appears the mechanism simply imposes the spending cuts across the board, account by account."
Alex Brill, an analyst on fiscal policy at the American Enterprise Institute, said the administration has few good options.
"Among the affected accounts, there's really very little flexibility that an agency has in terms of how to adjust itself," Mr. Brill said. "It's very difficult for an agency to reduce their number of employees, and very difficult for agencies to extract themselves from committed contracts. When you have to pay your workers, and you have to pay your contractors, you don't have a lot of flexibility."
• Susan Crabtree contributed to this report.
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