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Column: Despite party compromise, budget cuts causing worries in Congress


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Think the automatic budget cuts Congress ordered at the beginning of March — the so-called sequester — haven’t caused any pain yet?

Think again.

Judging from the squeals we’re hearing from members of Congress whose districts are threatened by cuts, the effects are intolerable.

The complaints from Democrats, who never wanted the sequester to go into effect, were predictable. But some of the complaining comes from Republicans who wanted the sequester as an overdue act of belt-tightening.

Tea party Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, has decried cuts to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which he called “one of the few legitimate functions of government.” (The Johnson Space Center, with about 3,000 civilian employees, happens to be in his Houston-area district.) The sequester, Stockman warned, could put all Americans in danger — by hampering NASA’s work to protect the Earth from asteroids.

And dozens of Republicans from rural areas have protested the Federal Aviation Administration’s plans to close control towers at 173 small airports, arguing that the needs of plane-flying farmers should come before competing priorities.

It’s funny how budget cuts seem more palatable when they affect someone else.

To be fair, not all these protests qualify for the label of first-class hypocrisy. Wilson never supported the sequester; like many GOP defense hawks, he wanted deeper domestic cuts and fewer defense cuts. And there have been profiles in spending-cut courage too, like Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif., who said military contractors in his area will just have to get by with less business, and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who said the Navy’s decision to cancel appearances by the Pensacola-based Blue Angels was worth the $20 million savings despite the pain for his district.

Still, it was striking that one of Congress’ rare moments of bipartisan cooperation came last week as the Senate and the House acted together to avoid an unnecessary government shutdown at the end of the month — and, along the way, to undo some of the most painful effects of their own sequester.

The two houses voted with unusual efficiency to transfer money (within the sequester’s limits) to prevent furloughs among meat inspectors, which could have caused hardship for ranchers and price spikes for consumers, and to restore funding for tuition subsidies for the military.

Both were causes that attracted bipartisan support. But both votes also reflected a return to politics-as-usual. They were choices among competing priorities — and, as usual, the squeakiest wheels won.

Despite the bipartisan yelping, the sequester has turned out to be mild, at least in this early stage. And now, by selectively undoing its most unpopular cuts, Congress is diluting the effect further. As a result, the once-feared sequester is starting to seem like nothing more than a slightly messy $85 billion spending cut that Congress can continue to tinker with for the rest of the year.

So give this round to the Republicans.

“They may have an advantage at this point by virtue of the fact that the first day of the sequester came and America is still in business,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate Democratic whip, acknowledged last week.

But Durbin said he still thinks voters will demand that the sequester is reversed, once they “understand that there is a price to be paid.”

Other Democrats aren’t so sure. “There will be a ‘frog in the boiling water’ effect,” predicted Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., — meaning the spending cuts will take hold so slowly that voters will hardly notice the pain. (In the end, of course, the frog doesn’t come out so well.)

Maybe now, with each side having notched up a victory, they can bargain over taxes and spending levels without the nail-biting brinkmanship that has dominated the last two years.

Nobody’s guaranteeing any results. But you can bet on one thing: Nobody’s going to propose another sequester any time soon.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com.

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