The federal government careened into the $85 billion spending sequesters Friday, embracing some of the biggest budget cuts in American history — though it will take weeks for most of the pain to be felt.
Most lawmakers said they had hoped to avoid the across-the-board cuts but couldn’t come to a consensus on how to do so. Senators defeated two last-ditch efforts Thursday and then House members skipped town for the weekend, leaving it to President Obama to begin carrying out the cuts, which he said he would do just before midnight.
He has scheduled a Friday morning meeting with congressional leaders to talk about the situation, but no action is expected.
In the short term, the White House has directed federal agencies to curtail travel, cancel any bonuses they aren’t legally obligated to pay, and begin writing plans for how to furlough employees.
Those furlough notices will go out in coming weeks, and federal contractors and state and local governments will have to adjust to lower federal funding.
It’s pain that few in Washington wanted. But lawmakers were unable to settle on a more palatable alternative, making the sequesters, in effect, a bad idea whose time has come.
“Sequester will kick in tomorrow. I think we all understand that,” Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, said Thursday. “We’re going through this pain again due to lack of courage of the United States Senate to address the real issues of the day.”
Mr. Obama chastised senators for failing.
“Instead of closing a single tax loophole that benefits the well-off and well-connected, they chose to cut vital services for children, seniors, our men and women in uniform and their families,” he said. “They voted to let the entire burden of deficit reduction fall squarely on the middle class.”
This fight differs from the spending battles of the past two years, when Congress would flirt with deadlines but always struck a last-minute deal to avert a government shutdown or debt default.
This time, the deadline is less gloomy. That’s partly because the sequesters are not that big — less than 5 percent of the federal budget — and partly because the cuts will be rolled out slowly over the coming months.
The White House budget office on Thursday issued guidance telling federal agencies to begin planning furloughs and to cancel contracts they can get out of without paying big penalties. The memo also told offices to stop hiring to fill low-priority job openings, and to halt bonuses.
Some of the pain the administration has warned about may not be true.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, speaking in the White House briefing room this week, pointed to a school district in West Virginia that he said was laying off teachers because of the sequester. But school officials there said it had nothing to do with the sequester.
White House press secretary Jay Carney on Thursday distanced himself from Mr. Duncan’s claim.
“I am not personally in contact with individual school districts,” he said.