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When does the sequester start? Don't ask Washington

Leaders in Washington know they are approaching the moment when the so-called sequester spending cuts are set to take effect -- but they apparently are confused about when exactly that moment is.

The White House confirmed today that President Obama will meet with congressional leaders to discuss the sequester on Friday, the day the sequester takes effect. That spurred congressional Republicans to criticize the president for scheduling a meeting after the sequester starts. Aides to both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told CBS News that the sequester officially becomes law at 12 a.m. ET on Friday - that's midnight from Thursday into Friday.

Shortly after that, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters, "My understanding is it happens at midnight on Friday, 11:59." In other words, the White House meeting would take place just before the sequester takes effect, not after.

In fact, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (H.R.8 and Public Law 112-240) lays out the timing this way, in Section 901(e): "Sequester- On March 1, 2013, the President shall order a sequestration for fiscal year 2013 pursuant to section 251A of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985."

Congressional sources tell CBS that this effectively means the sequestration starts when Mr. Obama wants it to. By law, he must sign an order to start the sequestration some time - anytime - on Friday. At that point, the Office of Management and Budget will release a report on the specifics of agency cuts.

As the president has stressed in recent days, the sequester won't happen "overnight." March 1 is the start of the gradual implementation of the cuts, which will be enacted at varying degrees of speed and impact depending on the government agency.

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