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Deadline For Sequester Cuts Near

Usually when we come up to the edge of one of these deadlines there are 11th-hour negotiations, and the two parties manage to swerve away from the precipice at the last minute. What about this time?

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Alright, to talk more about the politics behind the across-the-board cuts, here is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: We just heard Ari mention the idea of changing the sequester by giving the president flexibility on how to implement it. Where does that stand?

LIASSON: Well, the White House clearly doesn't want this, as you just heard. The president yesterday in Newport News - where he was campaigning against the sequester - says he would be forced to choose between cutting help for the disabled kid or the poor kid. And he says that can't be done because $85 billion out of the budget for the rest of this year is just too big a bite in too small a period of time. And Republicans are divided about this.

There is a move in the Senate to write a bill that would give the president flexibility, but many Republicans don't think they should cede Congress's constitutional authority to spend money to the president, even if they got some short term political benefit by passing the hot potato to the White House.

MONTAGNE: Well, usually, though, we come up to the edge of one of these deadlines - and there seem to be an endless supply of them - there are 11th hour negotiations. What about this time? We're certainly at the 11th hour.

LIASSON: It's not happening. It's not like talks have broken down. There are no talks at all. Both sides think the other side is going to cave in the end. The White House hopes that as the pain of the sequester affects real people, that will force more Republicans to consider what the president wants, which is replacing the sequester with a balance of spending cuts and revenue hikes in the form of closing tax loopholes that benefit the wealthy.

He talks a lot about hedge fund managers' benefits and corporate jet owners. But so far only a very small handful of Republicans agree with the president. And even though polls show the public would blame Republicans, they feel pretty insulated from political damage right now. They say the president is exaggerating the effects of the sequester and for many conservative Republicans, they see the sequester as the only way to get any real spending cuts.

And don't forget, the whole reason we're facing the sequester is the failure of both sides to reach the so-called grand bargain where the president and the Democrats agree to cuts in Medicare and Republicans agree to close some tax loopholes. And yesterday Speaker Boehner threw even more cold water on that notion when he said loopholes should only be closed in the context of tax reform that lowers tax rates.

MONTAGNE: Now, the president has been out there trying to build public pressure on Congress to avoid this sequester. Is that working?

LIASSON: Well, as a media strategy it's working. There have been lots of articles based on the White House analysis of how the sequester will affect local communities and states, but as a political strategy, it hasn't been working yet because the impact of the sequester is still abstract. So it hasn't translated into the political pressure that the president wants to create as he goes around the country playing the outside game and that's because, as he said yesterday in Newport News, these cuts are real, but they won't be felt right away.

MONTAGNE: Well, also could the president be hurt by exaggerating, if it seems like he's exaggerating, the effects once it all begins to happen?

LIASSON: Yes, he could, and this is, I think, the biggest risk that the White House faces and Republicans are saying he's crying wolf. You know, he's going around saying these are horrible. They're going to cause real pain and they're going to go into effect on Friday, and most people aren't going to feel anything. If you're a military family and you get furloughed one day a week, you're going to feel it.

And if your child's in Head Start and he can't go, you're going to feel it. But for the vast majority of people, it still will be abstract and the pain will build slowly over time. So it could take quite a while for the political pressure to mount if it ever happens.

MONTAGNE: Okay. Well, then how does the sequester affect the planning for the next fiscal cliff that's coming on March 27? That's the end of the continuing resolution that funds the federal government.

LIASSON: Yes, and then the government would shut down, which would make the sequester look pleasant by comparison. Republicans are hoping to incorporate the sequester cuts into a new continuing resolution that would fund the government through the rest of the year. And if the sequester cuts don't provoke a political backlash, they might get some of those sequester cuts into a continuing resolution.

But if they do provoke a backlash, then Democrats in the Senate would have more leverage in crafting a CR with fewer cuts. But neither side wants to be blamed for shutting down the government and that is the next showdown in the ongoing soap opera of the fiscal crisis.

MONTAGNE: Mara, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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