WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's Democratic allies in the Senate unveiled legislation Thursday to avoid a looming set of sharp, across-the-board spending cuts set to strike the Pentagon and domestic agencies in only two weeks.
The measure would impose a minimum tax rate on million-dollar incomes and replace the automatic cuts, known as a sequester in Washington-speak, with cuts to much-criticized farm subsidies and more gradual reductions to the Pentagon budget.
But the legislation, which was set to be revealed Thursday afternoon, is sure to die at the hands of Republicans opposed to new tax hikes when a vote is called the week of Feb. 25. Its release set off a predictable round of bickering in the Capitol.
Their whole goal here isn't to solve the problem, it's to have a show vote that's designed to fail, call it a day, and wait for someone else to pick up the pieces, said Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Well, my message this morning is simple: There won't be any easy off-ramps on this one. The days of 11th hour negotiations are over. Washington Democrats may have gotten used to Republicans bailing them out of their own lack of responsibility. But those days have passed.
The automatic cuts would drain $85 billion from the government's budget over the coming seven months, imposing an 8 percent cut on the Pentagon and a 5 percent cut on domestic agencies. Medicare provider payments would be cut by 2 percent.
The cuts are the resulting failure of a 2011 deficit supercommittee to reach agreement. The original idea was that the threat of the sequester would drive Democrats and Republicans to strike a budget bargain.
The ongoing deadlock comes as more and more federal agencies are coming forward with details about the consequences of the cuts, which are set to take effect March 1.
The Senate Appropriations Committee heard testimony from several Obama administration officials. The Pentagon, for instance, would have to furlough civilian employees for up to 22 working days over six months, while 15,000 air traffic controllers would be laid off for more than two weeks. There would be the equivalent of 5,000 fewer border patrol agents and 1,000 fewer FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives agents and U.S. Marshals.
Daniel Werfel, a top official in the White House budget office, said the cuts will mean reduced operating hours at smaller rural airports, less food aid for pregnant women and their children and less money for mental health programs.