BALTIMORE — While the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration are virtually certain to take effect this Friday, Congress could move to halt them in late March as part of a bill to set agency spending levels for the rest of the year, Sen. Ben Cardin said Monday.
“I don’t think we can avoid March 1 sequestration,” Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, told hundreds of Social Security Administration employees during an open meeting at the agency’s Baltimore-area headquarters. “I hope we can get out of it as quickly as possible.”
Under a “best-case scenario,” he said, the escape hatch would come when lawmakers approve a replacement for the continuing spending resolution that expires March 27. Assuming that the replacement bill covers the rest of fiscal 2013, it could end sequestration “either for the remainder of this year or for a longer period of time,” Cardin said.
At present, however, Democrats and Republicans remain far apart on any compromise that would reduce or cancel the $85 billion in cuts set to take effect Friday and last through the rest of fiscal 2013.
Senate Democrats plan to act on a bill this week that would provide $110 billion in deficit reduction through a combination of higher taxes and long-term reduction in spending on defense and farm subsidies. But GOP lawmakers have so far dismissed any plans for additional tax increases.
The House Appropriations Committee has already begun work on a year-long CR for most agencies, with separate bills covering the Defense Department, the Veterans Affairs Department, and military construction, spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said Monday via email. That legislation, which has not yet been made public, “does not turn off the sequester,” Hing said.
For SSA and other non-defense agencies, sequestration would mean about a five percent budget cut, although the actual impact would be magnified because the reduction is kicking in almost halfway through the fiscal year, Cardin said.
The impact on employees would hinge on how long sequestration lasts.
Among other steps, the agency could lay off more than 1,500 temporary workers and rehired retirees, but would seek to avoid furloughs, then-Commissioner Michael Astrue said in a Feb. 7 letter to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.
Carolyn Colvin, who has since replaced Astrue on an acting basis, reiterated Monday that the agency will “work to minimize the risk of furloughs.”
Some employees were still worried.
“We just don’t know what to expect,” Ericca Staton, a GS-9 paralegal, said in an interview after the meeting.