"It's not like a government shutdown and the next day parks are closed and the Washington Monument is walled off," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee. "It will be a series of steps over time."
Social service programs reliant on federal dollars will scale back. Civilian employees at military bases could lose their jobs. And federal workers face up to 22 days of furlough, or roughly one unpaid day off per week through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
These moves, over time, threaten economic recovery because it creates uncertainty for individuals and businesses alike, Democrats said.
"Folks can't plan. Businesses can't plan," said Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., a former Microsoft executive in her first full term in the House.
Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who serves southwest Washington, said the overall impact is getting overstated.
"There will be some effects on government services if the sequester is enacted, but I do not agree with the fearmongers who say our federal government can't possibly absorb a 2.5 percent decrease in federal spending," Herrera Beutler said.
"I would welcome a chance to apply the cuts more surgically than the across-the-board approach taken by the sequester as long as the overall spending decrease is at least as much as the sequester," she said.
Sequestration comes as a result of an earlier budget agreement between President Barack Obama and Congress. The spending cuts are split between military and domestic discretionary spending. Military personnel won't be cut, nor will Social Security, Medicare or highway funding. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that about 750,000 people could lose their jobs.
Many of the cuts could have real impacts in Washington state.
In Snohomish County, Head Start executive director Dana Connolly expects that about 40 children of the current 520 will lose the chance to attend Head Start preschool classes.
Two classrooms would be eliminated, meaning that about four full-time teachers and staff and five part-time aides would lose their jobs, Connolly said.
"Some low-income families are very fragile. For example, a $10 reduction in food stamps can tip some families into chaos," Connolly said. "Sometimes Head Start is the only constant in the lives of these children. We believe when they go on to kindergarten that our students and their families are better skilled in self-sufficiency."
So far, there are no clear answers as to when Connolly would have to cut her budget.
"We hope it's not until August so we have time to plan," she said. "In a nutshell, Congress is playing a game of chicken. I don't think they even know what is going to happen."
At Naval Station Everett, environmental protection specialist Jennifer Slavick, 32, of Shoreline, said she has some savings set aside. She is one of 1,000 civilian employees and contractors who work at the base. Another 1,200 work at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.
"Since the sequestration is not official yet, I've only spent a brief amount of time considering the possible impacts," Slavick said. "I hope I won't feel the financial constraints immediately."
In the meantime, Congress faces another deadline March 27. That's when the continuing resolution governing federal spending expires. Without a replacement, government will shut down.
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, whose district covers northwestern Washington including Everett, said this week that he believes Congress will pass some sort of delay to the impacts before then.
Larsen opposes eliminating the sequester outright. But, he said, the sequester is like going to the barbershop and getting every hair shaved off one's head. A replacement measure would be like a trim around the ears, "not as severe," Larsen said.
House and Senate leaders are trying to craft a new resolution to cover the remaining six months of the fiscal year, Murray said.
DelBene, who represents a portion of Snohomish County, said she hopes Congress comes up with a lasting budget instead.
"The brinksmanship that's been going on has been damaging to our economy," she said. "It's the wrong way to manage and it's the wrong way to build our economy."
Herrera Beutler echoed the sentiment.
"Like most folks, I'm frustrated with the posturing and gridlock in Congress," she said. "Yet I remain hopeful that Congress can work together to avoid a government shutdown."
The impact of the reductions
Sequestration is the bureaucratic buzzword for automatic, across-the-board federal spending cuts. Below are some examples of the cuts for a full federal budget year:
Education: The loss of about $22.8 million statewide for schools and special education, putting around 300 teacher and aide jobs at risk. In addition about 11,000 low-income students could lose math and reading tutoring and other services. In the Everett School District, that's a loss of about $3 million. Marysville and Oak Harbor school districts could lose $4.6 million in federal aid to make up for tribal lands or military installations, which don't provide local property tax revenues. Head Start and Early Head Start services would be eliminated for 1,000 children statewide.
Higher education: Around the state, about 440 low-income students would lose college aid. At colleges and universities, the National Science Foundation would cut funding for research by graduate students.
Military: About 29,000 civilian Department of Defense in Washington would be furloughed, reducing gross pay by about $173.4 million. At Naval Station Everett, about 1,000 civilian employees and contractors would be subject to furloughs. At Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, about 1,200 civilian employees and contractors are waiting to hear about unpaid furloughs.
Boeing contracts: The factory in Everett could see delays in orders for tankers from the Air Force. The tanker contract is worth $35 billion and 50,000 jobs. Sequestration also could slow the contract in Renton for P-8A Poseidon jets to be stationed at Whidbey Island.
Paine Field: The FAA has said that if sequester cuts continue through 2014, Paine Field's air traffic control tower will close, causing delays for the region's air traffic system.
Health and human services: Cuts such as free vaccines for children, HIV tests, care for homeless people and public heath department work to deal with epidemics such as the recent whooping cough outbreak are problems.The state will lose $1 million for meals on wheels for homebound seniors.
Environment: The state stands to lose about $4 million for clean air and water, as well as fish and wildlife protection. Army Corps of Engineers projects could lose funding, including the loss of $2 million for the Qwuloolt tidal wetlands project in Marysville.
Business and jobs: Several programs could lose funding such as Community Development Block Grants, small business loans, job-search assistance, child care for low-income working parents and support for international trade. Staff furloughs in the Social Security and Veterans Administration departments would cause delays in claims submissions.
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