Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., on Monday railed against Congress' failed handling of the federal budget process and the automatic budget cuts lawmakers allowed to take effect, but his enthusiasm appeared lost on the federal workers he was addressing in Maryland, all of whom had been spared the worst of the budget cuts.
"We're not going to allow our country to operate like a third world nation with the uncertainties of these sequester cuts," Cardin told senior officials at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "I can't tell you we are going to win it by Oct. 1, but we will win this fight."
Outside Cardin's town hall with federal workers, Gary Simpler, a security specialist with the agency for six years, said that sequester cuts that President Obama warned would devastate popular federal programs "hasn't really affected" the agency.
The commission had to trim $52 million from its $1 billion budget because of the sequester cuts, but it managed to do that without furloughing or firing staff.
The automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration, were implemented after Congress failed to agree on a plan to reduce the deficit and were specifically designed to be so painful that they would force Congress to negotiate a deal just to avoid them. But Congress never reached that deal and the sequester cuts kicked in earlier this year.
But not everyone is not feeling as squeezed by cuts as the White House predicted and that could sap lawmakers' sense of urgency for a new budget deal this fall.
The NRC imposed a hiring freeze and halted pay increases for workers to satisfy sequestration requirements, but it didn't furlough staff and workers there played down the effect sequestration was having on their agency's ability to perform.
"So far it hasn't affected us very much," said Sher Bahadur, a senior manager. "We have not let any staff members go, so we are working in full force. Work has not stopped in any direction, so far ... there is some angst, but not actively so."
Despite evidence that the sequester has been less damaging than Obama and lawmakers predicted, Cardin insists that the government cutbacks have been dire for federal employees in the Washington suburbs who were furloughed or fired because of it.
"It has been as bad as we thought it would be," Cardin said. "I've met with people who have not been able to pay their mortgage payments because of sequestration furloughs, I've met with people who don't know what's happening with their future, I've been with small-business owners who have had to lay off workers.
"For someone who has lost their job," he said, "it is a cliff."
Simpler, the NRC security specialist who avoided furlough, still has felt the bite of the budget cuts. His wife, a Pentagon civilian employee, was furloughed over the summer.
"In those cases, it's a big deal," he said. "Much bigger than it is here at the NRC."
A number of federal workers declined to comment for the record about Congress' handling of federal budget issues. Cardin suggested compromise is still possible for Congress.
"The Democrats are right in that we need to take a look at our tax code ... eliminating special breaks that some get, not all," Cardin told workers. "Republicans are right in that we have to look at mandatory spending and reduce some of those costs."