Four days and counting. But who's counting? President Barack Obama for one.
That's how long before government-wide budget cuts begin to hit home that will slash spending by roughly $85 billion over the next seven months.
And more are on the way if Congress and the president can't figure out how to replace Friday's indiscriminate autopilot cuts -- called a "sequester" in government jargon -- with more targeted measures.
Obama told the nation's governors on Monday, "Unfortunately, in just four days Congress is poised to allow serious and arbitrary automatic budget cuts to kick in that will slow our economy, eliminate good jobs and leave a lot of folks who are already pretty thinly stretched scrambling to figure out what to do."
The two parties remain far apart. Obama insists on both spending cuts and higher tax revenue through trimming deductions and loopholes used mostly by the wealthy. Republicans see that as a tax increase and are balking.
So Democrats and Republicans are hurling accusations at each other as Congress returns from a nine-day recess and members begin to focus on the next manufactured fiscal deadline -- March 27, by which time lawmakers must pass legislation to keep the entire government operating.
Obama is painting as gloomy a picture as possible of the impending cuts, even though they represent a relatively small percentage of the government's $3.5 trillion budget.
Over the weekend, the White House put out lists of how the cuts would affect individual states.
Everybody hates the sequester -- former Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Alan Blinder jokes "that's Latin for 'cutting federal spending stupidly'" -- but nobody's yet figured how to make it go away.
And, actually, the cuts -- together with other deficit-reducing steps by Obama and Congress over the past year and a slowly recovering economy -- are contributing to an improvement in the government's budget picture.
For the first time in four years, the budget deficit is on course to sink below $1 trillion.
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