AMESBURY — While Washington’s sequestration cuts will hit the public more like a gradual “heart disease” rather than a sudden “heart attack,” locally the first to feel the hit will be elder services such as senior centers and Meals on Wheels programs, said Congressman John Tierney at a public event yesterday.
With no deal made on the federal budget by yesterday’s deadline, $85 billion in automatic across-the-board cuts are slated to go into effect. Tierney, addressing a packed legislative luncheon held by the Amesbury Chamber of Commerce yesterday at Ristorante Molise, said the impact of the budget impasse will play out gradually.
“It’s not going to hit like a heart attack, more like heart disease,” Tierney said.
Federal funds for senior centers and Meals on Wheels — subsidized meals that are delivered to the doorsteps of needy seniors — “will be the first areas hit by this,” Tierney said. It’s estimated that nationally, about 5 percent of the Meals on Wheels budget will be cut.
Tierney, a Salem Democrat, criticized a large bloc of conservative Republicans in the House for failing to allow for a compromise. There are many Republicans who want to work out a solution, Tierney said, but they are a minority compared to the bloc.
“We have a continuing problem with about 177 of them running the (Republican) caucus and stopping things up,” he said. In the House, there are 232 Republicans, 200 Democrats and three empty seats.
Tierney repeated a criticism that has been leveled in recent months against the polarized Congress — that gerrymandered districts have resulted in the election of hyper-partisan candidates. While these candidates reflect the views of voters in their districts, their refusal to compromise and their disdain for government undermines what Tierney said Congress is supposed to do: find common ground so that compromises can be made on major issues such as federal spending.
“Not having a balanced approach is really where the problem lies,” Tierney said.
Meanwhile, in Washington yesterday, a combative President Barack Obama blamed Republican lawmakers for failing to stop automatic spending cuts from beginning to kick in, arguing he can’t perform a “Jedi mind meld” to get Republicans to agree on a deal.
But he and GOP leaders displayed no appetite for letting the fight shut the government down later this month.
Pressed on whether he bears some responsibility for the stalemate, Obama expressed frustration — and mixed his sci-fi metaphors.
“I’m presenting a fair deal, the fact that they don’t take it means that I should somehow, you know, do a Jedi mind meld with these folks and convince them to do what’s right,” Obama said. The Jedi reference comes from “Star Wars,” and the mind meld from “Star Trek.”
Still, following a nearly hour-long meeting in the White House, Obama and the top four leaders in Congress generally agreed not to create a crisis out of a March 27 deadline when federal authority to spend on government operations runs out.
“It’s the right thing to do to make sure we don’t have a government shutdown,” Obama said following the meeting. “And that’s preventable.”
Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s office said participants in the meeting agreed legislation should be enacted this month to continue government operations while lawmakers and the administration work separately to find ways to replace the automatic cuts.
The cuts were to take effect by the end of yesterday despite a parade of administration officials warning of grim consequences.
But while Obama called the cuts “dumb” and predicted they would hurt the economy, he also said: “This is not going to be a apocalypse.”
Obama is seeking a big fiscal deal that would raise taxes and trim billions from expensive and ever-growing entitlement programs. But with automatic federal spending cuts ready to start taking their toll, the path toward that grand bargain Obama campaigned on last year has significantly narrowed.
“The president got his tax hikes on January 1st,” Boehner said bluntly after the meeting. “The discussion about revenue in my view is over. It’s about taking on the spending problem here in Washington.”
For Obama, yesterday’s session was the first opportunity this year to spell out his 10-year, $1.5 trillion deficit reduction plan in a face-to-face meeting with congressional allies and adversaries.
His chances are squeezed by anti-tax conservatives, by liberals unwilling to cut into Medicare and Social Security, and by a Republican leadership that has dug in against any new revenue after acceding to Obama’s demands two months ago for a higher tax rate for top income earners.
The White House is still betting that once the public begins to experience the effects of the $85 billion in cuts, the pain will be severe enough to force lawmakers to reconsider and negotiate. But the consequences of the cuts — the so called sequester — are likely to be more of a slow boil. Obama this week said the effect “is not a cliff, but it is a tumble downward.”
Indeed, much of the impact won’t be felt for weeks or more than a month; some effects, like possible teacher layoffs, wouldn’t take place until the new school year in the fall.
Polls also show that the public is not as engaged in this showdown as it has been in past fiscal confrontations. And an NBC-Wall Street Journal survey indicates that Obama has lost some ground with the public on his handling of the economy.
Many conservatives are willing to accept the automatic cuts as the only way to reduce government spending, even though the budget knife cuts into cherished defense programs. Likewise, many liberals are beginning to embrace the cuts as a way to protect revered big benefit programs that have long been identified with the Democratic Party.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.