Deep federal cuts to start Friday; Congress leaves town

CongressWASHINGTON — About $85 billion in drastic, across-the-board federal spending cuts will begin to take effect Friday. The cuts are a product of the sequester, which Congress and President Barack Obama agreed to in hopes of making such slashing so unpalatable that it forces them to reach an alternative.

So what did many lawmakers do the day before the painful cuts take effect?

Skip town.

“I think the sequester is crazy, I think the president had to show more leadership, Congress should do more,” said Rep. Peter King, a Republican heading back to New York. “But just to sit here by myself serves no purpose.”

King was one of many congressmen who, before noon on Thursday, walked down the Capitol steps and into awaiting cars to leave Washington. Democrats criticized Republicans for not even sticking around when the cuts start coming; Republicans, in turn, blasted Democrats for not stepping up to do more to rein in spending.

Thus, there was plenty of blame to go around — but not a lot of action.

There will be some movement Friday, if for no other reason than that’s when Obama would be required to start implementing the cuts through the end of the current fiscal year.

Also, the president is set to meet with congressional leaders from both parties at the White House.

Expectations for that meeting are low. Most observers think both sides will use the occasion to underline their positions heading into the next round of the budget wars — a possible government shutdown on March 27, when current federal funding authority expires.

“I mean, we could stay here … and not pass … a bill,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., as he left the Capitol. “That’s not any better.”

As expected, a sharply divided Senate voted Thursday afternoon to reject alternative plans put forward by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Reid’s plan got 51 votes in support while McConnell’s got 38 — well shy of the 60 needed to clear the 100-member chamber.

Reid had proposed replacing the current spending cut package with a $110 billion blueprint that included placing new taxes on millionaires while cutting agriculture subsidies and defense spending. Most Republicans object to new defense cuts and have called any new taxes unacceptable.

McConnell wanted to give Obama more flexibility to pick a set of replacement cuts by March 15. Democrats considered the proposal a trap, designed to put more responsibility for the cuts on Obama’s shoulders. Critics in both parties considered the idea an abdication of Congress’s power of the purse.

– By Alan Siverleib and Dana Bash/CNN

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