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No Action Yet To Repeal Sequestration Cuts


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

President Obama spent part of the weekend reaching out to members of Congress. He's still looking for some alternative to the budget cuts that he ordered on Friday. A federal law required the automatic spending cuts and they went into effect, despite widespread agreement that the manner of the cuts was not very bright.

We're joined, as we are most Mondays, by Cokie Roberts for some analysis. Cokie, good morning.


INSKEEP: Do lawmakers feel any urge to change these cuts now that they're in effect?

ROBERTS: There doesn't seem to be any urgency about it. Of course these cuts are just beginning. After meeting with congressional leaders on Friday, President Obama went on the offense, saying that these were stupid cuts - as you said, not very bright - and that they will have a real effect, that they will slow this already tepid economy by about one half of one percent growth. But no one is really sure about that.

Here's House speaker John Boehner yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: I don't know whether it's going to hurt the economy or not. I don't think anyone quite understands how the sequester is really going to work.

ROBERTS: Now, that's actually the case. I don't think people do understand how it's going to work. He said earlier that it was going to have a devastating impact on the economy. Now it's just sort of wait and see. The president said it's not Armageddon. It will take a while to filter through the economy. The problem for the White House is that before it went into effect, they were essentially saying it was Armageddon.

INSKEEP: Well, it seems like everyone is making a political judgment here as to what the economic effect is going to be. That seems to be coloring what they say about the effects of this.

ROBERTS: Well, sure. And then that puts them in an embarrassing position. You know, you have a situation where on Friday the president said janitors at the Capitol were going to be laid off. And then their superiors at the Capitol said, well, no, that's not the case. Well, officers at the Capitol - police officers - won't get overtime and they are closing some doors so that they don't have to staff them. But nobody is being laid off.

Or Secretary of Education Arne Duncan saying that teachers are getting pink slips. And then The Washington Post fact-checkers giving him four Pinocchio's, which is the highest measure of untruthfulness.

So it plays into the hands of those Republicans who had been saying all along that the sequester is not such a big deal.

INSKEEP: Although Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, has said it will create a headwind for the economy and there are people who are going to be furloughed - who are going to be paid less. There are real effects here, right?

ROBERTS: Of course there are. And you know, even though this is designed not to hurt the poor, they will be affected because of grants to nonprofit organizations that help poor people or troubled youths or Head Start. The elderly are not supposed to be affected but Medicare providers will see their payments cut, and that will affect how they treat people. Civilian workers for the military very much affected in these furloughs. If you talking about a 20 percent pay cut, that's real, particularly since most of these people don't make much money to begin with.

And what the administration is hoping is that when people do start to feel these effects, that public opinion will kick in. And that then it will pressure Republicans, particularly in districts that are hard hit, to do something - to take back the sequestration and do something more sensible.

But part of the problem for the administration on this is that there's not sort of one big group that's affected, that can organize to say, OK, this is a disaster, let's change it. It's much more diffuse than that.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about that, Cokie Roberts. Because this is in effect a budget; it's setting budget limits throughout the government. Doesn't Congress have to agree on a budget yet again in just a few weeks? Or agree or fail to agree, I should say.

ROBERTS: Well, that's the good news. Both the president and the speaker have said that they will not allow the government to shut down at the end of this month, when the big government funding bill runs out. Now, of course they both said they wouldn't allow sequestration to go into effect either. So you know, you'd have to take that with a grain of salt.

But there is a tiny bit of hope, a tiny bit, that they might come to some agreement that keeps this from being so dire. Republicans are in the polls in a terrible position, so they have a reason to do something to make the voters more happy with them. The Democrats will have the responsibility - the president will - for the economy if it does go south and he gets the blame.

And you are hearing the president say he's ready to make a deal on entitlements. Some Republicans saying they are ready to make a deal on taxes if the money goes to reducing the debt.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much. That's Cokie Roberts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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