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With across-the-board cuts to federal spending scheduled to begin on March 1, the White House and congressional leaders this week sparred over the origin, impact and alternatives for the so-called "sequester" mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Absent congressional action, the $85.3 billion in cuts will be evenly split between defense and non-defense spending, and spread broadly to virtually every program and project.

The White House has stepped up its rhetoric in recent days, with the president traveling the country to warn of the dramatic impact the cuts could have on everything from air travel to education spending to first responders. Republicans in Congress counter by pointing out that the sequester was originally proposed by the Obama Administration and that the cuts amount to just 2.3 percent of federal spending and 0.5 percent of gross domestic product. Former Republican Senator Phil Gramm wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the federal government will spend $15 billion more than it did in 2012 even after the sequestration cuts. However, both sides largely agree that the sequestration mechanism is a blunt instrument, and fails to deal with the true driver of the deficit, namely the runaway growth of entitlements.

The president proposes what he calls a “balanced” plan to replace the planned cuts, reflected in Senate legislation to raise taxes on millionaires and oil producers while slashing direct farm payments and back-loading $27.5 billion in cuts to Pentagon spending. Republicans insist that taxes are off the table following the $600 billion in new revenue resulting from the New Year’s Day fiscal cliff deal, but some have proposed giving the White House more flexibility when it comes to administering the cuts.

While the sequestration process is officially triggered on March 1, pending a two month delay included in the American Taxpayer Relief Act, a March 27 deadline to continue funding the federal government offers a window of opportunity to modify the terms of the cuts or strike a broader deal to cut the deficit through entitlement or tax reform.