Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaks to reporters just after Senate Democrats passed their version of a yearlong tax cut extension bill by a near party-line 51-48 vote, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, July 25, 2012.(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's Democratic allies in the Senate are unveiling legislation Thursday to avoid a looming set of sharp, across-the-board spending cuts set to strike the Pentagon and domestic agencies in just two weeks.
The measure would impose a minimum tax rate on million-dollar incomes and replace the automatic cuts, known as a sequester in Washington-speak, with cuts to much-criticized farm subsidies and more gradual reductions to the Pentagon budget.
The legislation, set to be revealed Thursday afternoon, is sure to die at the hands of Republicans opposed to new tax hikes when a vote is called the week of Feb. 25.
The automatic cuts would drain $85 billion from the government's budget over the coming seven months, imposing an 8 percent cut on the Pentagon and a 5 percent cut on domestic agencies. Medicare provider payments would be cut by 2 percent.
The cuts are the resulting failure of a 2011 deficit "supercommittee" to reach agreement. The original idea was that the threat of the sequester would drive Democrats and Republicans to strike a budget bargain.
The Senate Appropriations Committee heard testimony from several Obama administration officials about the consequences of the cuts, which are set to take effect March 1. The Pentagon, for instance, would have to furlough civilian employees for up to 22 working days over six months, while 15,000 air traffic controllers would be laid off for more than two weeks. There would be the equivalent of 5,000 fewer border patrol agents and 1,000 fewer FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives agents and U.S. Marshals.
Daniel Werfel, a top official in the White House budget office, said the cuts will mean reduced operating hours at smaller rural airports, less food aid for pregnant women and their children and less money for mental health programs. He said the cuts will " keep federal agencies from conducting the inspections necessary to keep our food, our air, and our water safe and clean."
"A 5 percent cut this late into the fiscal year often translates into a double whammy for our agencies because fixed costs like rent and utilities can't be cut. The big cuts will be to salaries, which means furloughs, layoffs, and services not delivered to the American public," said Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters on Thursday the sequester was Obama's idea and said it's up to Senate Democrats to see if they can pass legislation to replace it with other spending cuts.
"When the Senate passes a plan, we'll be happy to take a look at it," Boehner said.
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