Softening the sequester's blow

With up to $5 billion restored through some maneuvering, agencies are seeking ways to avert the doomsday scenarios many had feared.

dollar signs

Federal officials are digging deep for ways to get around the across-the-board spending reductions of sequestration.

As much as $5 billion in slashed spending is set to be restored to federal budgets after White House number-crunchers discovered an obscure mechanism from a 1985 budget law and re-did the math with newer, more detailed numbers from the latest continuing resolution, the AP reported.

The move represents the kind of wiggle room that so far has allowed federal agencies to dodge some of the doomsday predictions set forth during the budget negotiations that ultimately led to sequestration being implemented.

Some of that leeway – which reportedly emerges amid cooperation between agencies and Congress in transferring money between accounts – means agencies can reduce or avoid furloughs and reroute funding to high-priority programs.

Already the Defense Department, reported to be on the receiving end of $4 billion of the restored funding, has reduced the projected number of furlough days for all civilian employees from 22 to 14. That number could once again change in coming days, as could the specifics of which employees will face furlough, once Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel concludes a budget review and issues a final decision.

Hagel "is relooking [at] the number of furlough days that must be implemented," said Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, Pentagon spokeswoman. "We expect to have the details soon, but no decisions have been made. At present, all civilian DOD employees, from all services, are subject to being furloughed. No final decisions regarding exemptions have been made."

It remains unclear when furlough notices could be issued – which also leaves uncertain when the furloughs would begin, how long they would last, how frequently they would occur and -- what sort of pay cuts all that would translate into for DOD employees.

Hull-Ryde declined to elaborate on when and how furloughs may be implemented once a decision is made.

Outside the Pentagon, other agencies are working to evade the sharpest of sequestration's cuts as well.

Congress last week passed legislation waiving Federal Aviation Administration furloughs that were causing flight delays, which President Barack Obama signed on May 1. The legislation allows the FAA is move money between accounts to keep employees at work and flights on time – but it also drew fire from backers of other government programs, including those related to education and serving the elderly, which are not necessarily so visible to frequent-flying lawmakers and still face major cuts.

On May 3, State Department officials said the recalculated cuts would allow them to escape furloughs, and officials at Food and Drug Administration said they would no longer have to go through with plans to curtail 2,100 inspections of food processing plants.

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