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The ax is set to fall March 1 — with the first installment of $1.2 trillion in reductions over the next decade — because lawmakers can’t agree on an alternative.

By Jim Puzzanghera and Richard Simon, Washington Bureau
February 9, 2013, 8:39 p.m.

WASHINGTON — In less than a month, a budget ax is set to fall on the federal government, indiscriminately chopping funding for the military and slicing money for various programs, including preschools and national parks.

The $85 billion in cuts that would take effect from March 1 through September — the first installment of $1.2 trillion in reductions over the next decade — would strike just about every agency and service in an attempt to ease the budget deficit.

The slashing, part of an automatic process known as sequestration, would affect the economy, government workers and average Americans in ways big and small. President Obama and Congress agreed to the sequestration law in 2011 hoping the threat of cuts would bring about a compromise to lower the deficit. But that hasn’t happened. Now, to stop the process, Congress and Obama would have to agree to an alternative.

Though the reductions were never intended to be implemented, there is a growing belief they will kick in anyway, because Washington politicians are sharply divided on how to reduce the deficit.

Many Republicans want to spare the military by cutting more out of social programs. Obama and his fellow Democrats want to offset some of the cuts with new revenue from limiting tax loopholes.

“I just don’t see how we’re going to avoid it,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), who is concerned about the impact on the military, said of the looming cuts. “It’s like everybody has dug in their heels.”

The Defense Department would take half of the budget hit and has been warning of its toll.

As many as 800,000 civilian employees of the military could be furloughed without pay for 22 days this year. The time that Air Force pilots spend in the air on training and flying missions would be reduced by 203,000 hours. And the Navy’s Blue Angels precision flying squadron would cancel all of their planned performances for the last six months of the fiscal year.

“This will badly damage our national defense and compromise our ability to respond to crises in a dangerous world,” Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said last week.

Because of limits on cuts to Medicare and exemptions for Social Security and other benefits, non-defense programs would face less of a spending cut — about 4.6% overall this year compared with 7.9% for the Pentagon. But on top of other reductions the last two years, the cuts would have a deep impact, according to analysts, advocacy groups and government workers.

“You’re going to feel it,” said Steve Bell, senior director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “There’s no way there can’t be a slowdown [in government services]. You’re going to see it at a local level.”

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