For the last six months, the White House told the groups that will suffer the biggest blow if domestic cuts go through one thing: We've got this.
But a week before the sequester deadline, they've decided to change course, summoning cops, teachers, nurses and first responders to the White House for meetings on how to pitch their case to lawmakers on Capitol Hill reluctant to cut a deal.
Senior White House and Cabinet aides have been holding daily meetings this week focusing on the real-world implications of the budget battle and how to shame Republicans into coming to the table -- even after the cuts take effect on March 1.
They've even turned their Cabinet members loose, dispatching them across the country after previously keeping them under a gag order on the spending cuts. The White House put the Office of Management and Budget in charge of the messaging on the domestic side of the cuts for agencies, keeping agency heads on a short leash when it came to talking about sequester -- leaving Obama to do most of the talking himself. The Cabinet trips suggest the White House realizes they need to bring new voices into the fight as both sides jockey to avoid getting blamed for the cuts in the closing days.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack traveled this week to his home state of Iowa warning about the implications to rural America if the cuts go through, while Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and Education Secretary Arne Duncan testified about the cuts last week before the Senate Appropriations Committee. The panel has also posted more than 20 letters from the FBI to NASA and the State Department detailing the planning under way.
"If there was a gag order, I'd say it's certainly been lifted," said Joel Packer, one of about 45 education officials who met Tuesday with White House and Education Department officials to discuss sequestration at the Old Executive Office Building.
During another meeting Wednesday, administration officials told public health experts they had a "critical window" starting on March 2 -- the day after sequestration starts -- until the expiration of the continuing resolution on March 27 "to make noise so lawmakers feel it when sequestration takes effect," said Emily Holubowich, an advocate for health budgets and also a spokeswoman for a broad collection of about 3,000 groups trying to save the discretionary budget from sequestration.
The Obama aides -- including Heath and Human Services Deputy Secretary Bill Corr, Office of Public Engagement Acting Director Stephanie Valencia, White House policy aide Carole Johnson and Tom Reilly of the Office of Management and Budget -- told the health groups that OMB would be issuing a sequestration order March 1 that gives the different federal agencies specific directions on how they should apply the cuts to their different programs, projects and activities.
White House officials did not respond to a request for comment about the meetings. But the meetings come amid other signs that the White House is changing course in the days before the sequester deadline. In addition to the meetings, Obama on Thursday called Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner for the first time in weeks.
About two-dozen law enforcement officials also hashed out sequestration details Thursday during their meeting with Obama aides, including Mary Lou Leary, the acting assistant attorney general; Tonya Robinson, a special assistant to Obama for justice; and regulatory policy and OMB Associate Director Dana Hyde.
"They're trying to make the best out of a bad situation," said Jack Cutrone, the president of the National Criminal Justice Association.
"We definitely got the impression that the OMB and the White House and the Justice Department were hearing and understanding our message and the good work we do with federal grant money," added Cutrone, who also serves as executive director of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.
While Obama shrugged off the $1.2 trillion in spending cuts during last fall's presidential campaign as something that wouldn't happen, he's been much more vocal in recent days.
On Tuesday, Obama appeared with emergency first responders who he warned could lose their jobs if no deal is reached to avert sequestration. He then sat down Wednesday with eight local television stations for a series of interviews to talk about the prospect of layoffs and furloughs for the military and cuts in popular domestic services that will be felt daily across the country.
For the outside groups, this week's meetings with key Obama aides have offered a chance to explain what sequestration will mean for their members and hear from the administration about what they can do to lobby against lawmakers the cuts.
Obama's education team on Tuesday urged dozens of education officials to talk about the local implications of sequestration when they are back in local school districts, including the prospect of layoff notices for teachers and also less college financial aid.
"I think the key takeaway, if there was one from the whole meeting, is that people back home at the local level need to be talking about the impact of the cuts," said Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding. "Everybody is doing national. That's all great and useful. I'd personally argue that all the numbers become a blur. It's really the personal stories."
Packer's meeting included Roberto Rodrguez, Obama's special assistant for education issues, OMB Associate Director Martha Coven and Education Department assistant secretary Carmel Martin.
More White House sequestration-themed meetings are planned over the next week with environmentalists, scientific research and housing groups.
Linda Couch, a senior Vice President for policy and research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said her group's message to the Obama aides when they meet will center around getting rid of the cuts. "Any plans to soften its impact with 'flexibilities' for OMB or agency heads are meaningless," she said in an email. "The cuts are too deep to be managed away."
This article first appeared on POLITICO Pro at 11:25 p.m. on February 21, 2013.
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