Obama, Republicans efforts to avert sequester fail

Deep cuts took effect at midnight; Senate turns back 2 measures as expected

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WASHINGTON -- Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey walked the center aisle of the Senate floor as colleagues approached the dais to cast their votes on a proposal he co-authored, one of two last-ditch efforts Thursday to avoid the sequester.

Both measures failed -- the results never in doubt -- triggering a series of deep cuts that took effect after midnight, causing across-the-board reductions in hundreds of government programs and services from military operation to meat inspection.

President Barack Obama and congressional leaders are scheduled to meet today at the White House to attempt to resolve their differences over budget issues before the cuts known as the sequester damage the economy too much.

Republicans had put their hopes in a plan crafted by Mr. Toomey and James Inhofe of Oklahoma that would maintain the magnitude of the $85 billion in cuts but give the administration discretion over where to make the cuts.

Democrats, meanwhile, wanted to replace the automatic sequester with a mix of cuts to defense and agriculture along with new revenue from tax increases on millionaires.

Neither plan received the 60 votes required to avoid a filibuster by the opposing party.

The Toomey-Inhofe plan got just 38 votes, with some Republicans opposing because they didn't want to cede power to the White House. Meanwhile, a 51-49 vote on the Democrats' plan was not enough to clear the procedural threshold of 60 votes.

The votes came after debate, which included an unusual back-and-forth between Mr. Toomey and Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois.

"The president and the secretary of transportation go around the country saying we're going to have to lay off air traffic controllers, we're going to have to shut down towers and we're going to have delays. None of that is necessary" if Congress gives the president the flexibility to make targeted cuts, Mr. Toomey said.

Mr. Durbin said he had recently met with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who said "exactly the opposite of what you just said. The sequestration is going to force him to reduce the payroll in his department, and the largest payroll source is the Federal Aviation Administration, and the largest cohort within that administration is air traffic controllers."

Mr. Toomey interrupted, asking Mr. Durbin to yield the floor so he could respond.

"I will when I'm finished," Mr. Durbin said. "It is mindless to stand here on the Senate floor to say we can cut $1 billion out of transportation and no one will feel it."

Mr. Toomey charged back, saying that even with the sequester, the president will wind up with more for some budgetary line items that he had asked for in his budget request to Congress.

That kind of heated exchange in which a member is interrupted is unusual on the Senate floor, Mr. Durbin said, directing his comments to the gallery, where about 60 tourists watched.

Later, as votes were cast, most senators paired off to chat while others stepped in and out of the chamber to greet visiting constituents or to speak with reporters. The die had already been cast on the sequestration votes, so many of the conversations outside the chamber were about other issues such as gun control and arts funding.

Inside, several senators leaned in around a clerk's desk to see how many votes had yet to be cast. With the outcome certain, most appeared to be looking to see how many senators hadn't voted yet so they would know how much longer they would have to wait for adjournment and their journeys back across the country to their districts for the long weekend.

With no hope of the Senate sending over a sequestration bill, the House already had adjourned.

That incensed members like Pennsylvania's Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, who said it's wrong for lawmakers to leave town just as the sequester takes effect.

Mr. Obama and other Democrats warned that the cuts would have far-reaching affects. They've said more than 750,000 Americans will lose their jobs, drug addicts won't be treated, children won't be vaccinated, schools will lose funding and civilian military personnel will have their wages and hours cut if the sequester remains in place.

Senators including Bob Casey, D-Pa., were disappointed.

"Rather than close loopholes for the wealthiest few and make smart cuts to eliminate government waste, some in Congress decided to protect the powerful and cast blame," Mr. Casey said. "Allowing these cuts to harm our economy is the wrong policy when there is an alternative. The American people deserve a balanced and reasonable approach that will protect middle-class families and create jobs."

Sequestration was never meant to be good economic policy. Rather, it was meant to be sufficiently unpalatable as to force Republicans and Democrats to reach a compromise on a plan to reduce the national debt.

In a statement issued after the vote, Mr. Obama said the Senate chose to cut vital services that help the middle class rather than close a single tax loophole.

"We should do better. We should work together to reduce our deficit in a balanced way -- by making spending cuts and closing special-interest tax loopholes," he said. "Middle-class families can't keep paying the price for dysfunction in Washington."

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Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: 703-996-9292 or tmauriello@post-gazette.com.


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