With sequester looming, Congress takes a break

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For weeks, leaders in Congress have emphatically warned they must avoid the deep, across-the-board spending cuts hitting the federal budget March 1. But with just two weeks left to avert the so-called sequester, members of Congress are leaving town for a week-long recess.

As they leave town, Democrats and Republicans are both predictably placing the blame on each other for the looming budget cuts, which amount to $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Both parties have, in fact, put forward their own ideas for averting the sequester, but the efforts so far have remained strictly partisan.

If no deal is reached by March 1, the Pentagon would have to start implementing a plan to cut its budget by about $500 billion over 10 years. Another $500 billion would hit non-defense programs. Economists agree the steep, across-the-board cuts would slow the economy. The White House recently laid out the ways the sequester would hurt the middle class, from slashing education programs to small business loan guarantees. Taking $1.2 trillion out of the economy would put close to a million jobs at risk, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated.

At this rate, however, it may take some economic damage to get Congress to work together.

"The sequester will be in effect until there are cuts and reforms that put us on a path to balance the budget over the next 10 years," House Speaker John Boehner said yesterday. "Period."

Democrats in both the House and Senate yesterday unveiled legislation that would replace the 10-year sequester for the rest of 2013 -- 10 months -- with $60 billion in spending cuts and $60 billion in new tax revenue. Most of the tax revenue would come from enacting the "Buffett rule," requiring those with incomes over $2 million to pay a tax rate of at least 30 percent.

White House spokesman Jay Carney released a statement calling it a "balanced plan."

"Now, Republicans in Congress face a simple choice," he said. "Do they protect investments in education, health care and national defense or do they continue to prioritize and protect tax loopholes that benefit the very few at the expense of middle and working class Americans?"

Republicans, however, insist they aren't going to vote for any plans that raise new tax revenue. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., yesterday dismissed the Democratic plan as a "gimmicky tax hike designed to fail."

House Republicans, meanwhile, note that they passed legislation last year to address the sequester. But since the Democratic-led Senate never picked them up, they'll now follow the Senate's lead.