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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

And in this part of the program, a new proposal from Senate Democrats to replace the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that are scheduled for March 1. Those cuts are known as the sequester. They would slice about $80 billion from this year's budget.

The president and many members of Congress have issued dire warnings that the cuts are ham-fisted and must be averted. Now, the Democrats have staked out a new bargaining position, as NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The Senate Democrats' plan would temporarily replace the sequester with a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases. The cuts would be shared between defense and domestic spending, and the revenue would come mostly from what's been dubbed the Buffett rule, setting an effective tax rate of at least 30 percent for the very wealthiest no matter the source of their income. Here's Iowa Senator Tom Harkin as he left a closed-door meeting where the plan was discussed.

SENATOR TOM HARKIN: It comes to about $108- or $109 billion. It gets us through the end of the year.

KEITH: But even before Democrats had a chance to formally announce it, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pre-empted them on the Senate floor. He calls it a gimmick.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Remember, this is not a solution. Even they know it can't pass. That's the idea. It's a political stunt designed to mask the fact they've offered no solutions.

KEITH: Earlier this week, McConnell said it was clear to him the sequester was going to go into effect. Twenty-five hundred miles away in Yermo, California, Marc Jackson is watching all of this political back and forth very closely.

DR. MARC JACKSON: We want the talking to stop. We want people to make the decision so we can plan accordingly. It's time to get on with this.

KEITH: Jackson is the superintendent of the Silver Valley Unified School District located more or less in the middle of nowhere in the Mojave Desert and where federal education dollars play a critical role. He says if the sequester happens, his schools would feel it immediately. In reality, they're feeling it already.

JACKSON: We can't plan appropriately. We really don't know up from down on this. It hurts our ability to recruit teachers, it hurts our ability to work with facilities and it's going to hurt the classroom.

KEITH: And so Jackson says he's planning for the worst. Thirty miles away at Fort Irwin, home to the Army National Training Center, Colonel Kurt Pinkerton is planning too.

COLONEL KURT PINKERTON: I'm the garrison commander out here at the National Training Center.

KEITH: He's like the city manager.

PINKERTON: You're basically taking care of about 22,000 people here on the installation every day.

KEITH: And he's not quite sure how he'll keep it all up if he has to furlough civilian staff and break contracts.

PINKERTON: What I'm doing is just prioritizing things. I can stop this. I cannot do that. From my side, it impacts me on my ability to maintain the city. And then from the operational side, it impacts the ability for these soldiers to go out and train and do what they got to do to, you know, stay - keep their skills honed and ready.

KEITH: The picture you get at the macro level about life after sequester is even more alarming. The nation's top military leaders testified before the House Armed Services Committee yesterday.

ASHTON CARTER: By the end of the year, there will be a readiness crisis.

GENERAL MARK ANTHONY WELSH: If it occurs, it will significantly undermine the Air Force's readiness and responsiveness today.

ADMIRAL JONATHAN GREENERT: Cancel ship and aircraft maintenance, reduce operations.

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: Sequestration will upend our defense strategy. It will put the nation at greater risk of coercion.

KEITH: That was Ashton Carter, the deputy secretary of defense, General Mark Welsh, Admiral Jonathan Greenert and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey. On the domestic side, the Senate Appropriations Committee heard similarly dire warnings today from a number of Cabinet secretaries, as well as Daniel Werfel in the president's Budget Office.

DANIEL WERFEL: No amount of planning or preparation on our part, no matter how thorough or careful, can mitigate the significant and highly destructive impacts that sequestration would have.

KEITH: It seems there's broad agreement the cuts, at least in their current form, would be harmful. But there's little agreement on how to avoid them or even how to talk about avoiding them. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol.

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