Friday's deadline for President Obama to issue a sequestration order is neither the beginning nor the end of this year's budget battles in Washington. Here are five key moments to watch over the next seven months, and what's at stake in each:
Sequestration of $85 billion from projected spending for the current fiscal year (which expires Sept. 30) begins no later than 11:59 p.m. It will cut 13 percent of defense spending — uniformed personnel costs are exempted — and 9 percent of domestic discretionary spending, including 2 percent of Medicare spending (which would come out of payments to providers, not reductions in coverage). Medicaid and Social Security are not subject to sequestration, nor are food stamps.
The continuing resolution (CR) by which the federal government is being funded expires March 27. If a new CR is not approved by Congress before then, there could be a government shutdown at that point. House Republicans are expected next week to propose a CR that would cover the remainder of the fiscal year (through Sept. 30) that would reflect the spending reductions forced by sequestration. Senate Democrats prefer not to bake the sequestration into a funding resolution in order to leave some flexibility to change or rescind the forced cuts. The prevailing sentiment in both parties is that it's in nobody's interest to have a government shutdown. Congress is scheduled to begin a two-week spring recess March 22, so lawmakers have exactly three weeks to agree on a new CR, or face losing some of their break trying to eke out a deal averting a shutdown.
Federal employees can only be furloughed with 30 days' notice, and notices cannot be sent until sequestration is in effect, so there can be no employee furloughs before April 1. Agencies are expected to wait until Monday, March 4, to send out notices.
The statutory debt ceiling has been suspended by Congress through mid-May, meaning the Treasury Department can accrue additional debt until then without violating any legal limit. So all the stopgap measures Treasury has at its disposal to stave off default once the debt limit has been reached are still available, and thus will likely make it unnecessary to raise the debt limit until mid-summer. That's when we could see another showdown.
The beginning of fiscal year 2014 could prove another crisis point. There's little agreement about how sequestration should be dealt with in next year's budget, so passing appropriations bills may prove difficult. By law — the August 2011 Budget Control Act — sequestration is to continue every year for the next eight years, paring around $85 billion each year off projected spending levels.