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Udall Takes Up Lonely Fight to End Sequestration

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., says ignoring the cuts set to take effect under sequestration would be a mistake. Photo by Alex Wong/ Getty Images.

The $85 billion cut in federal spending known as sequestration continues to migrate slowly through the government. But the cuts, taking effect over the next four months, for the most part seem to have been forgotten by the public and the press.

Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall says ignoring the growing cuts would be a mistake.

“My concern is we might get the opposite of compound interest. We’re all told to invest now and be patient and you see your assets’ value increase — sometimes exponentially. I worry that there’s a tipping point with sequestration where the cuts suddenly add up to more than the sum of the parts,” Udall told the NewsHour in a phone interview last Wednesday.

“I don’t want to be standing here — or in Colorado maybe even more importantly — on Oct. 1 saying, ‘I told you so. We should have acted. We now see the effects of these cuts.'”

There are no official figures on how much of the required reductions have occurred so far but the bulk of the sequestration cuts haven’t been made yet. Udall says they’re coming.

“You don’t have to look very far, at … the effect that sequestration would have on the national parks, the military — we’re looking at over half a million civilian employees being furloughed 11 days starting July 8, ” Udall said.

“Given the fragile economy we have and the nascent signs of recovery, it just seems to me we ought to think and act more like a businesswoman would, which is to target your cuts, not do them across the board in this simplistic, blunt way.”

Udall said that is “the whole point” of legislation he and Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins co-authored. The measure aims to give all federal agencies the kind of relief from sequestration’s across-the-board mandate Congress recently gave the Federal Aviation Administration, which allowed it to avoid planned furloughs of air traffic controllers that would have snarled air travel. Udall was a chief negotiator of the FAA deal.

But he says many in Congress seem to believe other pending cuts — including to programs for the needy — can be absorbed and no budget flexibility is necessary.

“That’s really the narrative here,” Udall said. “At home, when I do visit agencies that provide for the social safety net whether it’s Meals-on-Wheels to name one or — not a social safety net but an investment in the future in Head Start — increasingly the looks on people’s faces are of deep concern.”

Giving such programs flexibility to shift funds, even in the four months that remain before the fiscal year ends in October, would preserve funding of important services, according to Udall.

“We’re talking tens of millions of dollars overall. And those dollars at some point really do make a difference in people’s lives,” he said.

Udall says he gets a sympathetic hearing from top Senate appropriators who must approve his plan.

But his bill’s prospects are complicated by the fact that giving agency heads the power to move money around to save critical programs means Congress would need to release its jealously guarded authority to legislate — line by line — what federal agencies spend.

“Those are legitimate concerns,” says Udall, “[Appropriators] want to protect Congress’s oversight and power of the purse.”

For now, the focus in Washington is not on the sequestration cuts that remain this fiscal year but on fixing sequestration — which remains the law until it’s changed — next fiscal year and beyond.

President Barack Obama still hopes to reach a broad budget deal with Congressional Republicans that includes raising the federal borrowing limit and fixing sequestration long term.

Udall’s push: Fix sequestration now.

“I disagree tactically with the administration on how they ought to be responding to sequestration. I think we ought to make these changes under Udall-Collins. And there’s still plenty of reason to sit down and do the bigger deal that has to be done,” he says.

I asked Udall, still an avid mountain climber at 62, if his fight makes him feel like he’s facing one of his more arduous climbs.

“I do,” he said, “Although often times when you’re on a mountain, whether a medium-sized mountain or a high mountain like some I climbed in Asia, you generally get a view of the summit. So you know what your goal is, you know your ultimate destination. Some days here in Washington, it seems like it’s perpetually cloudy.”

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