Toomey, Casey discuss coming sequester

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., has taken the national stage this week, promoting his new plan to soften widespread budget cuts by granting the president the power to decide where to reduce spending.

But the White House has rejected the idea.

With $85 billion in indiscriminate cuts set to begin Friday, Toomey has scheduled talk show appearances and news conferences to press his last-minute proposal: allow President Barack Obama and department heads to hand pick the coming mandatory budget reductions.

“At this point there really isn’t any alternative,” Toomey said Wednesday.

Toomey’s colleague Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said Wednesday it’s likely that any deal to spare the economy would come after Friday’s deadline.

Under the sequester rule, reductions will hit nearly every government office. White House officials have said this will lead to job furloughs, reduced services and economic damage across the country.

In Pennsylvania, the forced cuts will leave tens of thousands unemployed and affect the powerful defense industry, Casey said in a pair of press calls this week.

Just a day remains for both parties to settle on an alternative, but on Wednesday, Toomey and Casey stumped for radically different plans that seem to include little across-the-aisle appeal.

And while both expressed hope in their pet proposals – for Toomey, giving Obama the ultimate say; for Casey, tying budget cuts to closed tax loopholes – the chance that they’ll settle before the Friday deadline appears increasingly distant.

“I have no doubt that this is already having an adverse impact,” Casey said. “It creates more uncertainty, more anxiety, at a time when we’ve got too much of both.”

Toomey said his plan, cosponsored with Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., will allow Obama to spare the defense industry the worst of the cuts while letting him choose less important programs to slash.

But the idea has earned criticism from both Democrats, who dismiss it as a means to blame the cuts on the president, and some Republicans, who’ve questioned the precedent it sets by letting Obama control budget matters.

“I’m just dealing with the reality we face,” Toomey said.

Without an alternative, the sequester could slowly hit government agencies over the coming weeks: About 240 employees at the Loretto federal prison recently received warnings of 112-hour furloughs, which would amount to a 10 percent pay cut, guard and union officer Phil Glover said.

Around 26,000 Department of Defense workers would be furloughed statewide, the White House announced earlier this week.

Cuts to the Department of Agriculture will mean slowed inspections and lost profit for farmers, Casey said, and defense contractors with Johnstown offices will likely be forced to scale back business.

“Businesses are very much taking a wait-and-see attitude, even if it looks like it’s coming,” Blair County Chamber of Commerce President Joe Hurd said Wednesday. “There will be some Blair County businesses that have to make some very critical decisions.”

Although Altoona-area businesses don’t rely on government contracts the way a number in Johnstown do, the sequester’s long-term ripples could hit the local economy if a deal isn’t reached, Hurd said.

While Casey said Senate Democrats have rallied around a single plan – cutting government spending and forcing the very wealthy to pay at least 30 percent of their incomes in taxes – Republicans hadn’t agreed on one program as of Wednesday afternoon.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has asked each party to submit just one sequester-avoiding plan by the week’s end.

Casey said he expects the sequester deadline to pass Friday, with the first cuts likely to take effect before both parties agree to a compromise later in March.

In what he called an “educated guess,” Casey said he can foresee the parties tying the sequester to another fast-approaching budget deadline: the March 27 vote to allow further discretionary spending.

“They’ll be fused together. … There’s a lot being done to reach an agreement that doesn’t meet the eye,” he said.

The first impact will likely be felt within days of the deadline, Casey said, but Democrats stressed Wednesday that the most serious sequester effects wouldn’t be obvious for weeks or even months.

But those affected by the sequester would be wise to watch closely as both sides maneuever for a deal, Hurd said.

“I’m not sure that businesses understand the extent of whatever impact there might be,” he said. “People let their guard down and learn the hard way that they’ve got to make some pretty quick decisions.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.