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Sequester is no grand deal, but it pares deficit

WASHINGTON — The latest budget impasse ushered in a new round of austerity Saturday, with the nation facing reduced federal services, canceled contracts, and layoffs. But on paper at least, President Obama and Congress have reduced projected deficits by nearly $4 trillion over a decade — the goal for stabilizing the national debt.

The spending cuts that began to take effect Friday — known as sequestration and totaling about $1 trillion through 2023 — come on top of $1.5 trillion in reductions that Obama and Congress committed to in 2011, mainly from the accord that averted the nation’s first debt default.

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Nearly $700 billion more will come from tax increases on wealthy Americans, the product of the brawl in December over George W. Bush-era tax cuts, and another $700 billion is expected to be saved in projected interest on the debt.

And so if the latest cuts stick, the two parties will have achieved nearly the full amount of deficit reduction over the next decade that economists and market analysts have urged. Yet the mix comes with substantial downsides.

It does not add up to the ‘‘grand bargain’’ that the two parties had been seeking, because it leaves virtually untouched the entitlement programs — Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — responsible for projections of an unsustainably rising federal debt in coming decades.

“This is not a result that deals with our long-term debt problem,’’ said Vin Weber, a former Republican member of Congress. ‘‘The fact we’ve gotten to a $4 trillion deficit-reduction deal without tackling entitlements is almost a bad thing,’’ he added, if it lulls the public and the politicians into thinking the problem is solved.

The progress on deficit reduction over the past two years will also probably hamper economic recovery and job creation. Private and government forecasters project that the sequestration alone will cost about 700,000 jobs this year and shave at least a half percentage point from economic growth. The Congressional Budget Office forecasts a falling deficit, but stubbornly high unemployment in coming years.

For Democrats, at least, the mix of spending cuts and tax increases in the package is another reason for disappointment. The deficit deals to date would yield $4 in spending cuts for every dollar of new revenues. Obama, as well as several bipartisan groups, call for $1 of tax increases for every $2 to $3 in spending cuts.

It remains unclear how long the sequestration will last: It was designed to be so onerous to force a compromise on an alternative. But Obama and Republicans indicated Friday that the cuts would probably remain in place at least until the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30.

Democrats express confidence that in coming months public pressure will force Republicans to relent on revenues, especially as cuts to the military begin to be felt. But GOP leaders have said they will stand firm against tax increases.

In his weekly address on Saturday, Obama said the Republicans had ‘‘decided that protecting special interest tax breaks for the well-off and well-connected is more important than protecting our military and middle-class families from these cuts.’’

“I still believe we can and must replace these cuts with a balanced approach — one that combines smart spending cuts with entitlement reform and changes to our tax code that make it more fair for families and businesses without raising anyone’s tax rates,’’ he added.

In the Republican response, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, said: ‘‘The problem here isn’t a lack of taxes. This year alone, the federal government will take in more revenue than ever before. Spending is the problem, which means cutting spending is the solution.’’

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, total government spending is falling compared with the size of the economy, but will rise again in the next decade. That growth will be driven by the entitlement programs as more baby boomers retire.

And revenues remain below the average of the past 40 years as measured against gross domestic product.

The grand bargain that has eluded Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner was supposed to mainly curb entitlement spending and raise revenues.

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