Sequestration will take effect today, kick-starting an $85 billion mix of automatic cuts to government programs because of lawmakers' inability to compromise on a way to cut the federal deficit.
Friday's deadline has been 18 months in the making. And though the economic impact won't be initially felt, the first phase of reductions over the next seven months will affect the ability of government to function on federal, state and local levels.
The cuts are not expected to have an immediate influence on agencies or citizens. And despite gloomy state-by-state forecasts issued by the White House on possible outcomes because of sequestration, gauging the severity of the sequester has proven to be speculative in many cases.
But as the clock ticked closer to deadline Thursday, one Tennessee senator lamented not having found an alternative and laid blame at the foot of President Barack Obama.
"If this sequester goes into effect, it will be a complete failure of presidential leadership and ought to be an embarrassment to the president," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, in a conference call with Tennessee reporters. "… Everyone has known for 18 months that it needed to be replaced."
Alexander said Americans should feel "disgusted" by the president and suggested the Obama administration had resorted to "scare tactics" as a course of action, instead of submitting a viable reduction plan.
"It really is disgusting to me to see the White House playing such cynical politics," he said.
Alexander shied from accepting any responsibility for Friday's fiscal deadline, despite having voted for legislation that set a chain of events leading to Friday in motion last year.
The process leading to the sequester began with the Budget Control Act of 2011, which raised the debt limit and created a supercommittee of 12 lawmakers tasked to find a way to cut $1.2 trillion from the deficit in the next decade. Alexander voted for the bill, along with his Tennessee colleague, Sen. Bob Corker.
Chattanooga area Reps. Chuck Fleischmann and Scott DesJarlais opposed the legislation.
Obama signed it into law.
The supercommittee failed to find a compromise and placed the government on a collision course with the sequester that ended on Jan. 1 of this year—a deadline that, along with other items, such as the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts, became commonly known as the "fiscal cliff."
In the deal to avert the cliff, lawmakers opted to delay the sequester until March 1. Both Alexander and Corker supported the final cliff deal, and once more, Fleischmann and DesJarlais opposed the final House version.
Sen. Bob Corker said Thursday that implementation of the sequester was partially on the hands of his Senate colleagues, who had failed to address "the real issues" facing Congress. Corker made his remarks on the Senate floor and said sequestration—though "ham-handed"—wasn't the worst of all possible outcomes.
"The only thing worse than sequestration, in my opinion, would be kicking the can down the road on some much-needed fiscal discipline in Washington," Corker said.
The senator and former Chattanooga mayor added that an upcoming consideration of a short-term spending plan to fund the federal government could provide lawmakers with a chance to replace some of the provisions of the sequester. A continuing resolution will need to be approved by Congress before a March 27 deadline, at the risk of a possible government shutdown.
In recent weeks, both senators sponsored legislation that would have replaced the sequester, had it gained any traction in the Senate. The Dollar for Dollar Act, introduced by Corker and co-sponsored by Alexander, would have allowed for a nearly $1 trillion raise in the debt limit in exchange for approximately $1 trillion in reductions to entitlement spending, on programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Corker said Thursday he thought the most glaring issue in Washington still remained with entitlement spending.
"The reason that we're really here today is [because] this body has not come to terms with the fact that we have to reform entitlements for them to be here for future generations and certainly people who are getting ready to retire," he said. "And so that's a shame, and we're going through this pain again due to lack of courage on the U.S. Senate to address the real issues of the day."