Automatic Budget Cuts To Take Effect This Week

In 2011, during the debt ceiling crisis, Congress passed and President Obama signed a law mandating automatic budget cuts. The cuts were never supposed to take effect. In fact, they were designed to be clumsy and damaging enough to prod lawmakers to agree on something better. Which they haven't.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's review. In 2011 in the debt ceiling crisis, Congress passed and President Obama signed a law mandating automatic budget cuts. Those cuts were never supposed to take effect. In fact, they were designed to be clumsy and damaging enough to prod lawmakers to agree on something better, which they have not, so the cuts are about to take effect.

For some insight as the deadline approaches, we're joined as we are most Mondays by Cokie Roberts. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve. Take care of that cold.

INSKEEP: Oh, thanks. Thanks very much. I'll work on that. We'll do some health reporting on the effect of the cold on the voice.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: But any case - any chance these cuts will not happen?

ROBERTS: It's hard to see how they will not happen. You know, usually these things do get settled at the last minute, but at the moment it looks like these cuts will, at the end of this week, go into effect. Both Houses of Congress are still on recess. They don't come back until tonight and they do have plans for legislation this week. The House will take up the Violence Against Women Act. The Senate will take up the very controversial nomination of Chuck Hagel for the Secretary of Defense. And guns seem to be on the agenda.

But the problem is that they really don't have a way of avoiding this that they can agree on. They'll bring up competing plans. The Democrats are saying that they'll try to postpone the sequester for while and bring in some tax increases may be, say, that millionaires have to pay at least 30 percent of their income on taxes. Republicans are working on their own, still-not-revealed, alternative.

But, you know, what we're dealing with here is the blame game, Steve. The Democrats are saying that the Republicans are protecting the wealthy and letting these dire cuts go into effect in order to protect the wealthy. The Republicans say the government can handle these cuts, that they're not that great although they are stupid, they say, because they aren't looking at individual programs - they're just ax across-the-board, but that the president just wants to raise taxes. So that's what we're dealing with here.

INSKEEP: OK, how does this affect the financial markets and the credit rating agencies?

ROBERTS: Well, it's not good. Is it? And economists keep saying that the economy is kind of ticking along nicely, except gas prices are going up, but that the biggest problem for the economy is Washington. But I think that we might be facing an interesting question, that it might be a bigger problem for Washington, if nothing happens. Because now, the president and the administration have been saying that it's going to be so dire that we're going to be waiting in long lines at the airports - that some airports might even close down because they don't have traffic controllers - that children will be sent home from Head Start programs.

Now it is true that government workers are preparing for furloughs. But if it doesn't turn out to be that great big thing, it could be a crying wolf situation.

They're now looking at March 27th, when the government is scheduled to run out of money, as the next big deadline. And I think that's what's we're all going to be looking at now.

INSKEEP: Cokie, just a few seconds here. You're getting out of the story. You're going to Rome to cover the choice of a new pope. What's going to happen next there?

ROBERTS: Well, that is an ancient institution being taken over by modern times. And we've had a couple of huge scandals happening. We know about Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles now, the head of the Scottish Church, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, is being charged with having been inappropriate with young seminarians.

I think they're going to try to get this election happening faster rather than later because they don't want more of these stories coming out.

INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much. That's Cokie Roberts, who joins us most Monday mornings for analysis. And as she heads off to Rome, we'll continue following the sequestration debate here in Washington and the debates to follow.

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