WASHINGTON — A new plan by Senate Democrats to head off severe spending cuts in two weeks met an icy reception from Republicans on Thursday as administration officials stepped forward to lay out the biting consequences that could come if no deal is reached soon: thousands of air-traffic controllers sidelined, the on-and-off idling of meat plants nationwide, slashed food aid and nutrition education for low-income women and children, locked gates at wildlife refuges, 10,000 laid-off teachers and much more.
As part of their solution to the impasse, Democrats propose a minimum tax on the wealthy, a nonstarter with the GOP, as well as cuts to much-criticized farm subsidies and more gradual reductions in the Pentagon budget than will happen if the automatic cuts, known as sequester, kick in. Republicans vowed to kill the Democratic legislation encompassing the plan when a vote is called the week of Feb. 25 — just days before the across-the-board cuts would start to slam government operations and the economy.
Release of the plan set off a predictable round of bickering in a capital that remains at a loss over how to prevent the sequester, even as more and more details on the impact of the cuts are being released by panicked agency heads.
The automatic sequester cuts that the Democratic bill is trying to avoid would drain $85 billion from the government's budget in the coming seven months, imposing cuts of at least 8 percent on the Pentagon and 5 percent on domestic agencies.
Officials cast the likely consequences in dire terms, as is always the case when agency budgets are threatened. The sequester law exempts Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps and Medicare recipients' benefits from cuts, and the White House has instructed agencies to give priority to avoiding cuts that "present risks to life, safety or health." But there is no question the cuts would bite deep, and most programs are vulnerable.