No end to debate on sequester impact

It has now been two weeks since automatic budget cuts kicked in, and Political Washington is still waiting to see whether there will be a dramatic impact as forecast by Democrats, or if ominous predictions made by the Obama Administration - and ridiculed by many Republicans - won't exactly come true.

"We have not put a hiring freeze on yet, and we are just starting to limit overtime slightly," said Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole, who said nothing about furloughs to a House committee on Thursday when asked about the sequester and aviation security.

When asked if there would be longer lines in security checkpoints soon at airports for travelers, Pistole was still predicting that would happen - but not immediately.

"There may be (longer lines) later this spring and clearly going into the summer," Pistole explained.

But one thing that might actually help ease any cuts and furloughs is that about a thousand TSA employees are expected to cycle out of their jobs in the next few months through attrition and retirements, thus making it easier to absorb an across the board cut of five percent.

At another U.S. House hearing on Thursday, the head of immigration enforcement was also quizzed about how the cuts would hit his agency, which is already under fire for releasing hundreds of illegal immigrants as a way to deal with a budget squeeze.

"How many total detainees were released?" asked Rep. John Carter (R-TX).

"Two thousand, two hundred and twenty eight," answered Immigration and Customs Enforcement director John Morton.

"I understand that, at this point, you don't intend on furloughing any employees," Morton was asked at another point in the hearing.

"That's correct, said Morton, who told lawmakers the way he would get around the cuts would be to hold on to his manpower, but not send as many enforcement agents into the field.

"In order to carry out our law enforcement mission, we need those officers in place," said Morton, who indicated that ICE would have enough manpower available post-sequester to deal with all illegal immigrants now being held in U.S. immigration jails.

"I'm going to do everything in my power not to furlough," Morton told Rep. David Price (D-NC).

Meanwhile, Republicans were trying to use a pending budget bill for the rest of the fiscal year to find ways to reverse possible sequester cuts in airport control towers and to restore public tours of the White House - not by spending more money, but by shifting resources around in the budget.

But they weren't gaining the agreement of Democrats.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), who has been detailing new job openings being advertised by agencies who are threatening furloughs, tried to force a hiring freeze on non-essential jobs in the federal government, arguing it would easily save enough money to prevent job cuts by Uncle Sam.

"How about a Leadership Development Specialist at Treasury?" Coburn asked during debate on the Senate floor, noting that recent job posting.

"Is that really a priority right now, at $182,000 a year?"

Coburn's argument didn't fly with Democrats, as they banded together to defeat his amendment, leaving the GOP budget hawk fuming on the Senate floor over Congressional budget choices.

Other amendment votes are still possible on the FAA contract air traffic towers and the White House tours, as the Senate left town on Thursday without completing the budget measure for this year.

Key Senators and staff will try to hammer out a deal over the weekend on what amendments will be considered, which is likely to leave some of those sequester votes on the sidelines.

Finally, down at the White House, there was still no real description offered of how the sequester would impact Executive Branch employees, as Press Secretary Jay Carney spent much of his briefing pointing the finger of blame at Republicans.

"It’s unfortunate that if the sequester is allowed to stay in place, three-quarters of a million Americans will lose their jobs. That's a terrible outcome," Carney told reporters.

President Obama will be on the road Friday, as he goes to Illinois. Carney was asked this week how much that trip - or a recent one to Florida - would cost, but refused to get into any specifics:

Q The Secret Service told us that the tours cost $74,000 a week. How much is it going to cost for the President to travel later this week to Illinois?

MR. CARNEY: Well, the President is the President of the United States, and he is elected to represent all of the people. And he travels around the country, appropriately. I don't have a figure on the cost of presidential travel. It is obviously something, as every President deals with because of security and staff, a significant undertaking. But the President has to travel around the country. He has to travel around the world. That is part of his job.

Q How much does it cost for him to go and play golf?

MR. CARNEY: Jon, again, you’re trivializing an impact here. People will lose their jobs. Three-quarters of a million people will lose their job.

Q This is about choices. You have a certain amount of --

MR. CARNEY: Right. The law stipulates what the costs will be for each agency. Those jobs will be lost, okay? And you can report on White House tours, or you can find out what the impacts are out in the real world -- additional impacts are. This is a real-world impact here, and it is unfortunate. And it is an unhappy choice.

The fact of the matter is Congress made this choice -- Republicans made this choice. Their option was to do what they did a few months ago and delay the sequester to allow for time to try to negotiate a bigger deal. They chose not to because they refused to accept the principle that the well-off and well-connected ought to pay a little bit towards deficit reduction. That was a choice. And it was a choice that was presented to the American people as a home run, as something that was politically advantageous, in the back pocket of the Speaker of the House; it was a tea party victory. But there are consequences to that victory for the tea party, and the consequences are what we’ve been discussing today.