President Bush was poised to sign an order Monday cutting federal programs by $16 billion, and his budget director said the cuts will be felt faster than they were the last time they were invoked.
The cutbacks are required under the Gramm-Rudman balanced-budget law because of the failure of Congress and the White House to agree on a deficit-reduction package.Unless the House and Senate work out a compromise version of their deficit-cutting bills and send them to Bush by midnight - considered virtually impossible because many lawmakers were out of town - the president is required to sign the order.
"The very, very high odds are that . . . we'll end up in sequester," the formal name for the automatic cuts, Richard Darman, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, told reporters Monday.
Darman said the cuts will be imposed at a very low level of federal agency operations, making it harder for bureaucrats to transfer money to compensate for the reductions.
When the automatic cuts were last invoked for two months in 1987, they were applied at a higher level, making them easier to deal with, and they were barely noticed by most Americans.
"It has a little more discipline to it," Darman said of the changed method of imposing the cuts.
The reductions, spread evenly across many defense and domestic programs, are expected to total about $8.1 billion for defense and $8.1 billion for domestic initiatives. That works out to reductions of about 4.3 percent in defense programs and 5.3 percent in domestic agencies.
The cuts are expected to be rolled back as soon as Congress works out a compromise deficit-reduction bill. The Senate approved its version of the measure late Friday, and House-Senate negotiators could begin their meetings this week.
But Darman said Sunday it might be best if Congress left the spending cuts in place instead of rolling them back.
"This time, if it goes into effect, I think it would be good if people would live with it and say, `don't restore the cuts,"' Darman said on the ABC-TV program, "This Week With David Brinkley."
Automatic budget cuts took effect in 1986 and 1987 as well, but Congress acted quickly to restore the lost funds, a process that Darman called "phony."
The reductions are not expected to be felt by many Americans, at least initially.
"It affects a relatively small number of people in our society, and affects them in a relatively small way," Rep. Bill Frenzel of Minnesota, ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, said last week.
The automatic Gramm-Rudman cuts, when the law was enacted in 1985, were intended to seem so horrific that Congress and the president would be frightened into cutting the federal deficit in order to avoid them.
It didn't quite work out this year.
The law requires a projected deficit for fiscal 1990 - which began Oct. 1 - of no more than $100 billion. If the projected shortfall exceeds the target by more than $10 billion today, the law automatically triggers cuts in spending of whatever is required to slash the figure to $100 billion.
The White House's Office of Management and Budget - which makes the projections - estimated in August that the 1990 deficit would be $116.2 billion.