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Automatic budget cuts to inflict pain on California, but not all at once

4:32 PM, Feb 28, 2013   |    comments
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By Raju Chebium
Gannett Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Schools, national parks, military bases and social-service programs across California will see fewer federal dollars beginning Friday because Congress allowed $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts to take effect.

Despite last-minute efforts, Democrats and Republicans were unable to agree on an alternative plan to reduce spending, setting in motion the so-called budget sequestration process.

Under that mechanism -- which was part of a 2011 deficit-reduction measure that Congress approved and President Barack Obama signed into law -- most federal programs must take a financial haircut this fiscal year. Defense programs must be reduced by about 8 percent and most domestic programs by 5 percent by Sept. 30, which marks the end of the 2013 fiscal year.

Obama scolded Congress for allowing the automatic cuts to become reality.

"Instead of cutting out the government spending we don't need -- wasteful programs that don't work, special interest tax loopholes and tax breaks -- what the sequester does is it uses a meat cleaver approach to gut critical investments," he said this week in Newport News, Va. "The impact of this policy won't be felt overnight, but it will be real. The sequester will weaken America's economic recovery."

Republicans blasted the president for making campaign-style appearances instead of working on a deal with Congress. They rejected his call to raise taxes and cut spending, saying they weren't about to agree to another tax hike three months after reluctantly agreeing to raise taxes on the rich to avert the "fiscal cliff."

"This is not the time for a road-show president," said California GOP Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority whip.

If the automatic cuts are allowed to continue for the next seven months, the White House estimates California could lose about $150 million for K-12 education, $12.4 million in environmental funds, $5.4 million for meals for the elderly and $3.3 million aimed at helping the unemployed find work.

Additionally, 9,600 low-income Californians could lose college work study jobs, 8,200 children could be denied pre-kindergarten services through Head Start and 15,800 kids may have to forego vaccines for measles, mumps, flu and other illnesses, the administration said.

About 64,000 civilians working at California military bases could face furloughs. The state's Army bases face a $54 million cut in operating funds and Air Force installations face a $15 million reduction. The Navy may have to cancel maintenance and repair on five ships in San Diego, the White House said.

National parks could be short-staffed and some scenic areas could be closed off to visitors because of potential cuts of $1.43 million at Yosemite, $172,000 at Pinnacles, $820,000 at Sequoia/Kings Canyon and $305,000 at Joshua Tree, according to the National Park Service.

The $85 billion in cuts are the first installment of a 10-year push to reduce spending by $1.2 trillion to rein in the federal debt. Military personnel and entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security won't be affected. That means service men and women will stay employed and retirees will continue receiving monthly checks and government-paid medical benefits.

Most Democrats and Republicans said they don't favor across-the-board cuts and preferred carefully planned reductions to minimize the impact on their constituents. But they couldn't agree on Plan B.

Senate Democrats pushed a proposal that called for raising taxes on the wealthy -- which the GOP rejected -- and cutting defense and agriculture spending. House Republicans passed bills that cut spending, but Democrats said that approach was unacceptable because it would hurt vulnerable Americans. Neither side budged, triggering across-the-board cuts that few thought would come to pass.

The partisan divisions remained strong as the Friday deadline loomed, pointing to the challenges the lie ahead in finding a middle way.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said Republicans should embrace the Democratic plan because it balances cuts with new revenue and has public support. The state risks losing 225,000 jobs if the sequester isn't replaced, she warned, pushing for the Democratic alternative to be adopted quickly.

"We have two parties that have grown as far apart as they ever have in history," Boxer told reporters in her Capitol Hill office this week. "One is the austerity party. The other one is the balanced-approach party. . . . Our state (supports) the balanced approach. Sadly, we have a House that seems to have as its first priority making sure this president has no success."

Republicans said Americans must bear some pain now to avoid big headaches in the future, arguing that raising taxes is not the way to solve the problem.

"It's not a debate between cutting spending or not cutting spending; it's a debate between cutting spending now, or saddling the younger generation with even bigger debts," Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, said in an email interview.

The GOP-controlled House voted twice last year "to replace the sequester with sensible, targeted cuts," he said. "The Democrats refuse to cooperate with us unless we agree to yet another damaging tax hike. President Obama already got his tax hike, and he shouldn't exploit the situation for those ends."

Even as the spending cuts start being phased in, the two sides are beginning a new effort to work out their differences.

Obama has scheduled to meet with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., at the White House on Friday to discuss the next steps.

Contributing: Susan Davis, USA TODAY

Gannett Washington Bureau

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