WASHINGTON — The White House budget office is recalculating how to apply automatic spending cuts for a handful of agencies, freeing up almost $4 billion for the Pentagon and another $1 billion or so for other agencies like the Homeland Security Department and NASA.
Capitol Hill aides familiar with the White House changes say the administration has identified almost $5 billion in cuts that can be restored under its reading of the arcane budget rules governing the across-the-board cuts, known as sequestration.
The calculations differ from earlier ones because a partial-year funding bill was replaced in March with a more detailed measure. After administration number crunchers redid their math they were able to restore about $5 billion of the scheduled $85 billion in automatic sequestration cuts under a complicated, previously unused mechanism that dates to a 1985 budget law.
An administration official confirmed the calculations Friday but declined to comment further because the process is ongoing. The official and congressional aides spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the changes publicly.
The move comes amid increasing public pressure to find ways to lessen the impact of sequestration. Federal agencies are warning that the mandatory cuts could mean cutbacks in services. Last week, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed legislation giving the Federal Aviation Administration the ability to avoid furloughs that were causing flight delays by tapping money in other accounts.
The cuts officially began in March after Congress and Obama could not reach an agreement on a broader budget deal. The automatic cuts had been imposed under a hard-fought 2011 debt and budget pact. They require a 5 percent cut to domestic agency operating budgets and an 8 percent cut to the Pentagon. Social Security was exempted and cuts to Medicare were limited to a 2 percent cut to health care providers. Safety net programs like Medicaid, food stamps and school lunches for the poor were exempted, too.
The cuts have so far failed to live up to the dire warnings issued earlier by agencies, in part because agency budget officers working with Congress have been permitted to transfer money between accounts. That allowed the Justice Department, for instance, to avoid temporary layoffs called furloughs. But budget experts warn that the grip of sequestration will grow tighter as weeks and months pass, leading to teacher layoffs, reduced funding for infrastructure and economic development projects, and a host of other cuts across the budget.