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Even at 2.3%, sequester cuts can cause some pain

In theory, it shouldn't be tough to trim 2.3 percent from the federal budget — the size of the sequesters, compared with the overall budget. But the way Congress and President Obama wrote the sequester cuts taking effect Friday means that some deep pain will be inevitable.

The cuts must come chiefly from discretionary spending, and Mr. Obama already ruled out touching troops' salaries, meaning that most of the $3.6 trillion federal budget is off limits.

That leaves the White House facing the task of cutting $85.3 billion from a pool of money nearly $1 trillion in size, which means cuts of as much as 13 percent to defense programs under the ax, and 9 percent for most domestic programs subject to trimming.

What that means specifically is still an open question.

Already, some illegal immigrants have been released from detention centers -- though the administration says they remain under supervision, either through electronic monitoring or by being required to check in regularly.

The administration has warned of shuttered national parks, fewer childhood vaccinations, teacher layoffs, beef shortages because food can't be inspected, and more illegal immigrants coming across the U.S.-Mexico border because Border Patrol agents will have to be furloughed.

"Families and businesses across this country are also bracing for the pain of deep cuts to programs that keep our food safe, our water clean and our borders secure," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.

But Republicans said the spending levels will go back to what they were just a few years ago -- and they argued that the government seemed to operate just fine.

"In 2009, was food not inspected?" said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican. "Did we have any Border Patrol agents in 2009? Of course we did. Of course we did. They will be funded at the same levels as under the sequester, and that's our point."

The Congressional Budget Office said that with the cuts, discretionary spending will drop to $1.213 trillion this year. That is lower than any other year in Mr. Obama's tenure.

But the specifics contrast with some of Mr. Cantor's calculations.

In 2008, the year before Mr. Obama took office, the Border Patrol averaged 17,499 agents, far fewer than the 21,394 agents employed in 2012. Analysts said the boost in agents has been responsible for a remarkable drop in the number of people trying to cross the border illegally.

Overall, the Homeland Security Department, which oversees immigration, the U.S. Secret Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration, will have its budget go from $46 billion in 2012 to $58.3 billion -- though that jump is a result of emergency spending for Superstorm Sandy.

Without the aid for recovery from Sandy, the department will have about $43.9 billion to spend, according to Republicans -- a drop of 4.7 percent.

The Coast Guard has warned that it will have to reduce rescue flights and sea patrols to accommodate the cuts.

The cuts would be easier to absorb if Congress and Mr. Obama had spread them across the entire budget, including entitlements.

Spending on those programs — chiefly Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — has grown from $1.59 trillion in 2008 to $2.03 trillion last year.

Democrats and Republicans acknowledge they must eventually tackle those programs, but they shy away from it because they are afraid the other party will attack them politically.

While the sequesters call for $85.3 billion in cuts from 2013 spending, the CBO says the dollars won't work out exactly that way because of budget accounting.

Those cuts are to spending authority, while actual outlays — what the government will pay out this year — will lag.

"Not all of that money would have been spent in this fiscal year in the absence of the sequestration: Some would have been used to enter into contracts to buy goods or services to be provided and paid for next year or in subsequent years," the CBO said Thursday.

The budget office estimated that in terms of deficit reduction, sequestration will cut $42 billion from what otherwise would be paid out in 2013.

The cuts will mean economic pain.

CBO said gross domestic product would grow about 0.6 percent faster and the economy would add 750,000 more jobs if the government continued spending without restraint — but over the longer run the added deficits would hurt the economy, the CBO says.

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