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Originally published Sunday, May 5, 2013 at 6:55 PM

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Federal sequestration cuts taking their toll

Congress last month delivered a last-minute rescue that ended furloughs for air traffic controllers, but reprieves from the pain of the $85 billion in federal budget cuts known as “sequestration” appear to be over.

The New York Times

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Facing the task of cutting 142 children from the Head Start program in Colorado Springs, Colo., this fall, the teachers and administrators there came up with a creative response: Have the children paint and decorate chairs, then sell them for $500 apiece to stave off the worst of the across-the-board federal cuts heading their way. So far, in a month, their “Fill a Seat” fundraiser has filled just two.

But in neighboring Wyoming, the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks were able to tap the deep pockets and political influence of affluent donors and the support of neighboring communities to maintain full park operations through the peak tourist season this summer.

The $85 billion in federal budget cuts known as sequestration are beginning to be felt far from the nation’s capital, like a Head Start program in Pejepscot, Maine, that is being closed and a cancer center in Birmingham, Ala., that is looking at layoffs. Kidney patients are losing their free transportation to dialysis centers in Stark County, Ohio, and flood gauges are being shut down on the Red River in North Dakota.

Some programs are coping, some are struggling and others appear to be out of luck.

Late last month, Sheila Payne, a Head Start director in Texas, drove 85 miles to break the news to workers in the towns of Baird and Ranger: After 16 years, their programs would be shut down. Ten employees would be out of work as of May 1, and 40 children would be staying home.

Not everyone is feeling the pain. Congress delivered a last-minute reprieve last month for air traffic controllers facing layoffs. The only other sequester fix that may come out of the House in the coming weeks would spare oncologists from a 2 percent cut in reimbursements for chemotherapy.

Beyond that, however, the rescues appear to be over.

“Cherry-picking at the sequester is the wrong approach,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. “The result is some of the most visible problems and some of the most powerful constituents may get relief, but everybody else gets left behind.”

Neither party wanted to hurt federal law enforcement, so Congress granted the Justice Department such broad authority to shift money around that furloughs and job cuts once predicted for the FBI have evaporated. Customs and Border Protection had planned to furlough all 60,000 of its workers. But with new spending flexibility granted by Congress in March, the agency now says it will furlough no one.

An even larger “reprogramming” request is expected in the coming days from the Defense Department, which is absorbing half of the sequestration cuts.

On a much smaller level, the Jenny Lake Visitor Center and Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve in Grand Teton National Park were to be closed all summer because of the cuts — until private donors pitched in $116,000. Now, both will open on time.

Officials at Yellowstone, struggling with pending cuts, had decided to delay opening much of the park until the snow on the roads melted on its own. Then the neighboring towns of Cody and Jackson, Wyo., raised $171,000 to pay for snow-removal crews. The roads to Old Faithful from the west and east opened on schedule, said Al Nash, a park spokesman, and the South Entrance, weather permitting, will open on May 10 — right on time.

But Washington appears to have reached its limit in offering any more assistance, especially for hard-hit social programs.

At issue for programs like Head Start, which is financed by the Department of Health and Human Services, is politics — specifically the politics of President Obama’s health-care law. Congressional Republicans have refused to grant the same kind of latitude to the department’s secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, that they have given to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. for fear that she will use it to increase financing to carry out the Affordable Care Act, Republican aides say.

Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Mark Udall, D-Colo., have renewed a push to grant the administration broad latitude to move money around to mitigate the sequester cuts. But they have met stiff resistance in both parties.

Republicans say the shifts would be tantamount to Congress relinquishing its constitutional power to designate what programs are financed at what levels. Democrats are split between those who continue to oppose a broad sequestration fix unless it includes some revenue increases and those who say it is time to give up and mitigate the damage as best they can.

“That fight’s over,” Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said of the demand for tax increases in any sequestration deal. “It really is a different context, now that the sequester is a reality.”

The cost of that stalemate is mounting. Edward Partridge, director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said he has not replaced two researchers who retired in the past six months. On Friday, he convened his first meeting to look at layoffs, but he is still trying to protect the center’s research programs. If staff cuts do not do the trick, he said, he will turn to the center’s basic research to hold off reductions in programs “where discoveries are applied to people.”

Even before sequestration, federal spending on health-care services, research and training had fallen by $25 billion in 2012 from 2011. Housing, food, nutrition and other income-assistance programs for the poor were cut by $28 billion. State governmental aid had been reduced even more.

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