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Automatic Cuts: Necessary Medicine Or Doomsday?

As the congressional "supercommittee" runs out of time to reach a deficit-cutting deal, the word "sequestration" is being spoken more and more in Washington.

Depending upon the speaker's political views, the word can be spit out as a curse word, or intoned as a blessing. But love it or hate it, "sequestration" may turn out to be a word that dramatically changes the world's most powerful military, and reshapes domestic programs for public health, education, the environment and much more.

So what exactly does the word mean? Encyclopaedia Britannica says the term refers to "the removal of property from a person in possession of the property."

Here's what it means in this Washington context:

Back in August, Congress was wrestling with the question of raising the federal debt limit. To get Republicans to go along with an immediate increase in the debt ceiling, Congress agreed to create the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction — a "supercommittee" composed of 12 Democrats and Republicans from the Senate and House.

The group was charged with approving a plan by Nov. 23 to reduce deficits by $1.2 trillion over a decade. If an agreement cannot be reached, then "sequestration" will do the job. That is, automatic, across-the-board spending cuts — evenly divided between defense and civilian programs — would begin in fiscal 2013.

"If the committee fails to act, sequestration is going to go forward," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters earlier this week.

Many people in Washington — both conservatives and liberals — are afraid of that process because the cuts could be so draconian. For example, at the Pentagon, the automatic cuts would reduce budgets for defense-related programs by as much as $600 billion over the next decade.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned Congress that sequestration would "invite aggression from U.S. adversaries." That's because it would lead to a "hollow force" of "ships without sailors" and "brigades without bullets."

Some Republicans already have said they would push to rescind the automatic cuts in defense, but Reid said that could happen only if Congress also rescinds the civilian program cuts.

Hoping to spur the supercommittee to do its job, the White House has been supportive of the sequestration process as a punishment for failure to compromise within the group. Last week, President Obama said he "will not accept any measure that attempts to turn off part of the sequester."

But this week he was less clear about a veto threat. "I'm not going to comment on whether I veto a particular bill until I actually see a bill because I still hold out the prospect that there's going to be a light bulb moment where everybody says, 'Ah ha,' here's what we've got to do,' " he said.

But while talk of rescinding sequestration has been growing, not everyone opposes the automatic spending cuts. For example, during a speech Wednesday at the libertarian Cato Institute's Monetary Policy Conference, Ron Paul suggested the automatic cuts should commence.

Paul, a GOP presidential candidate, said across-the-board cuts are the only real hope for cutting government spending. "It would be better than doing what it looks like they might do — raise taxes — and pretend that they're going to get more cuts," he said. "That's not going to happen; that's been tried before and the cuts never come about."

Some liberals also support sequestration. Robert Borosage, co-director of the liberal policy group Campaign for America's Future, on Wednesday told the Congressional Progressive Caucus that "for this nation to succeed, the supercommittee must fail."

Borosage and other liberals say automatic cuts would be better than those that might come out of a "grand bargain" struck by the supercommittee. That's because key programs — including Social Security, Medicaid, Pell Grants and food stamps — would not be reduced under sequestration.

"The cuts in other programs — public health, education, the environment, renewable energy, disease prevention, health research and more — would be brutal," Borosage wrote on Salon.com earlier this month. "But the programs for the poor and vulnerable are likely to fare better in event of failure, than in event of a grand bargain."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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