US automatic spending cuts would bite more in 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) The United States faces a second round of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that promise to be far more painful than the first, amid a gloomy outlook for budget negotiations set to resume this week.

The first round of cuts, which took effect earlier this year when bitterly divided Democrats and Republicans failed to come up with a deficit-reduction agreement, didn't live up to the dire predictions from the Obama administration and others, who warned big disruptions of government services.

Several federal agencies found lots of loose change that helped them through the automatic cuts in the 2013 budget year that ended Sept. 30, allowing them to minimize the number of public employees forced off the job and maintain many services. Most of that money, however, has been spent.

The Pentagon used more than $5 billion in unspent money from previous years to ease its $39 billion budget cut. Employee furloughs originally scheduled for 11 days were cut back to six days. The Justice Department found more than $500 million in similar money that allowed agencies like the FBI to avoid furloughs altogether.

Finding replacement cuts is the priority of budget talks scheduled to resume this week, but many observers think the talks won't bear fruit. It's a continuation of the partisan bickering that has gripped Washington for years. The talks come as both political parties are grappling with the fallout from the 16-day partial government shutdown that resulted last month while the two sides fought over a temporary spending bill.

For the time being, Congress has frozen 2014 spending at 2013 levels while negotiators seek a budget deal that would ease some of the automatic cuts. Absent a deal, the spending "caps" on agency operating budgets will shrink by another $20 billion or so, with most of that money squeezed out of the Pentagon.

Agencies that have thus far withstood the harshest effects of the cuts in 2013 are bracing for a second round that will feel a lot worse.

A drop in participation and lower-than-expected food prices allowed a widely supported food program for low-income pregnant women and children to get through this year without having to take away anyone's benefits. A second round of automatic sequestration cuts could mean some women with toddlers lose coverage next year.

To avert furloughing air traffic controllers and disrupting airline flights this year, Congress shifted $253 million in automatic cuts to airport construction funds. Those funds are needed to meet a requirement to install runway safety areas at all airports by 2015, so that pot of money won't be available to bail out controllers again.

Nowhere will the effects be felt more than at the Justice Department, which pretty much skated through the automatic cuts in 2013.

The FBI already has suspended training of new agents and has instituted a hiring freeze.

Without relief from Congress, new FBI Director James Comey said the automatic spending cuts will require him to eliminate 3,000 positions. The FBI's 36,000 employees are facing unpaid furloughs of two weeks.

The situation will also worsen at the Pentagon, where the first round was already difficult, eroding combat readiness and grounding Air Force squadrons. Cuts in military training, maintenance and weapons purchases were deeper than average because the Pentagon was allowed to exempt military personnel accounts.

The automatic spending cuts' impact has been slow to kick in in many instances because it typically takes months or more from the time spending is approved until the money is actually disbursed by the government. Also, some 2013 spending is doled out around the Sept. 30 end of the budget year, so those cuts are just taking effect now.

Accounts for housing vouchers for the poor took a hit in 2013, but most local housing agencies had previously appropriated but unspent money in reserve. Few, if any, families already getting vouchers lost them. Instead, people on waiting lists seeking vouchers just didn't get them.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank and advocacy group for the poor, calculated that 40,000 to 65,000 fewer families will have vouchers by the end of this year than at the end of 2012. By the end of 2014, between 125,000 and 185,000 fewer families would have vouchers if the automatic spending cuts stay in place unchanged, the center said, and that could mean some families might lose their apartments.

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Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor contributed to this story.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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