WASHINGTON — The potentially massive cuts in federal spending that could cascade through federal and state agencies beginning in three days were conceived a year and a half ago as Washington’s own version of a game of chicken.
The across-the-board reductions in everything from military spending to aid to the poor would prove so politically unpalatable, the thinking went, that the political parties would be forced to agree on a more sound plan to bring the deficit under control.
But it hasn’t worked, and with prospects for a deal by Friday’s deadline dwindling, the once-distant threat of automatic cuts is now real.
That, in turn, has focused attention on why the nation is facing yet another political crisis that some say could hobble important government operations.
The roots of the so-called sequestration cuts can be traced back nearly two decades, according to longtime participants in the legislative process. It was set in motion, they contend, when Congress began failing to fulfill a key responsibility: drafting and approving budgets for the federal government each year that funded social programs and other investments, raised enough taxes to pay for them, and curbed ballooning expenses enough to balance the books.
“This has a long history of Congress failing to make hard decisions,” said G. William Hoagland, vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington who served as a senior GOP staff member on the Senate Budget Committee from 1986 to 2003. “Congress’s failure to take on entitlement programs and raise revenues in a serious manner . . . is how we ended up with these reductions. Now it is really going to come home to roost.”
The idea of automatic budget cuts as a last resort was conceived by the late New Hampshire Republican Senator Warren Rudman. The idea was to set a deadline that would trigger across-the-board cuts that spared no agency or program, thinking that would motivate Congress to do its job and pass a workable budget.
It proved an effective nudge — at least for a while.
Former Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell of Maine, who oversaw a number of compromises in Congress, including a 1990 budget deal that averted the need for such automatic cuts, said in an interview Monday that the old threat no longer works.
“Now you have a substantial number of House Republicans who appear to truly believe that the only solution is massive spending cuts,” he said. Such a policy would plunge the nation into recession or worse, he warned.
To underscore that analysis, Senate Democrats on Monday said they plan to propose a measure this week that would delay the bulk of the automatic cuts until the end of the year, for now substituting targeted cuts and closing tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations.
But Democrats acknowledged there is little hope that proposal could pass the House, where advocates of small government welcome the across-the-board automatic spending cuts.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said President Obama supports the plan, which he said will shift the ball into House Republicans’ court, adding that Obama will continue to take his case to the public to pressure GOP lawmakers.
“Senate Democrats have put forward a proposal that does not ask much in terms of hard choices for House Republicans,” Carney said during Monday’s press briefing. “The president has said that we have to do this in a balanced way.”
Obama told the nation’s governors at a meeting at the White House Monday that it’s up to Congress to avert the cuts “with just a little bit of compromise,” urging members of the National Governors Association to speak with their states’ congressional delegations to “remind them in no uncertain terms exactly what is at stake.”
The president has come under fire from critics who contend that he has not reached out to the GOP to initiate talks that may produce a last-minute deal. Carney said Monday that Obama spoke with lawmakers last week and “will continue to engage with Congress,” though he added no further specifics on meetings leading up to Friday’s deadline.
Congress, however, has failed now for years to complete the basic task of passing an annual budget on time and has often been forced to pass a so-called “continuing resolution” to keep the government operating at the previous year’s levels, without which it would have to close many operations.
“Most of the time over the past 15 years the Congress has not met its schedule to pass a budget,” said Gordon Adams, a former White House budget official who now teaches government at American University. “The partisan political atmosphere has exacerbated a process that was broken to begin with.”
Longtime Washington deal makers said even they were dumbfounded at how debilitated Congress has become.
“So they came to an agreement [in 2011] that says, ‘this will force us to do something because if we don’t the results will be unbearable,’ ” said Harold Brown, who served as secretary of defense from 1977 to 1981 and serves on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. “It turns out even that doesn’t do it.”
The latest budget impasse has also seen the rift between the White House and House Republicans reemerge along familiar fault lines. The automatic cuts were initially scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1, but an 11th hour deal was reached to avoid them as part of the so-called “fiscal cliff.” The compromise raised $600 billion in new taxes but delayed the automatic cuts only until March 1.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and other House Republicans said at a news conference Monday that raising more taxes now is not an option.
“Mr. President, you got your tax increase,” Boehner remarked icily.
Republicans in the Senate, meanwhile, are crafting a proposal to give administration officials more flexibility in how to carry out the program cuts. But Carney said no amount of flexibility will erase the effect on homeland security and unemployment benefits, among other government services.
They are “imagining something that isn’t possible,” he said.
Still, a growing number of experts predict that the sequestration cuts, while harmful, won’t be as bad as lawmakers convey — especially if they are eventually reversed as part of a new budget plan.
Indeed, because Congress hasn’t passed a budget this year, it will have to adopt another continuing resolution by the end of March to prevent the government from partially closing for the first time since a 21-day shutdown in 1995 and 1996. If that resolution fails, another dire-sounding deadline will approach.
“March 27 is the real deadline,” said Adams. “If they don’t do something about that, the government will close down altogether.”Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender. Michael Kranish of the Globe Washington Bureau contributed.