As for the assertion that 600,000 women could be dropped from the Women, Infants and Children Program, that's not to say the rolls would be cut by that number. The actual number is likely to include women who are not enrolled in the program now and could be denied when seeking to join it. Federal officials say the true number will depend on how states can manage their caseloads.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has warned of impending furloughs of air traffic controllers, who may need to take one day off every two weeks, and said air-travel delays are likely across the country. Asked Friday why the airline lobby predicted no major impact on air travel from the sequester, he said, "I don't think they have the information we're presenting to them today."
"The idea that we're just doing this to create some kind of a horrific scare tactic is nonsense," LaHood said. But it's a pressure tactic nonetheless: "What I'm trying to do is to wake up members of the Congress on the Republican side to the idea that they need to come to the table."
However the cuts fall, Light at NYU says the Washington Monument ploy, also known as the Firemen First principle, is at work.
It goes like this: Put someone's budget at risk and the first thing you'll hear is a threat to close a cherished national symbol or lay off firefighters and police, when in fact there are other ways to cut spending.
It so happens the Washington Monument is already closed, for earthquake repair. But Obama indulged in the Firemen First principle quite literally.
He appeared at the White House in front of officers in blue uniforms to warn of the consequences of the sequester. "Emergency responders like the ones who are here today — their ability to help communities respond to and recover from disasters will be degraded."
FBI and Border Patrol furloughs are expected. Still, the White House has directed agencies to avoid cuts presenting "risks to life, safety or health" and to minimize harm to crucial services.
The law gives little flexibility to agencies to protect favored programs, except for big ones specifically exempted from the automatic cuts, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and veterans benefits. There's only so much latitude to move money among accounts.
But not everything is cast in stone. The Small Business Administration, for example, should be able to avoid furloughs because of early retirements already achieved, said Karen Mills, the administrator. And she said declining demand for one type of loan should free up money for other lending, so "we are not slowing down giving loans to anyone."
In the partial government shutdown during his presidency, Bill Clinton and his officials told some tall tales and sketched dark scenarios that didn't come to pass, though some might have if the crisis had lasted weeks or months longer. The shutdown played out over two installments totaling 26 days from mid-November 1995 to early January 1996.
National park properties closed (yes, even the Washington Monument), passport and federal mortgage insurance processing were disrupted and toxic waste cleanup stalled as hundreds of thousands of federal workers went idle, paid retroactively later. But states, communities and private groups stepped up to tide over the neediest, keeping Meals on Wheels rolling with their own resources, for example, until Clinton found emergency money to cover the costs. Warnings that Medicare treatment would be withheld proved unfounded, and veterans got their care.
Contractors, who perform many key services for government, kept working for IOUs. A claim by the government that deportations "have virtually ended" was not so.
The Justice Department told the story of a Florida gas station rejecting the government-issued credit card of a drug-enforcement agent to illustrate the indignity of it all.
But the reality was humdrum: The card had merely expired.
Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Mary Clare Jalonick, Joan Lowy and Philip Elliott contributed to this report.