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Budget Cut Warnings May Prove Harsher Than Reality

â¿¿A key reminder: Social Security, Medicare and veterans' benefits, Medicaid and a host of other benefit programs are exempted. The cuts take effect over a seven-month period; they don't all crash ashore on March 1. If a bipartisan deal to ease them is reached, lawmakers could restore some or all the money retroactively.

â¿¿On the other hand: Left in effect, these cuts are real even though their program-by-program impact is unclear. The law limits the administration's flexibility to protect favored initiatives, but the White House has told agencies to avoid cuts presenting "risks to life, safety or health" and to minimize harm to crucial services.

â¿¿Defense: Troops at war would be protected, but there'd be fewer Air Force flying hours, less training for some Army units and cuts in naval forces. A $3 billion cut in the military's Tricare health care system could diminish elective care for military families and retirees. And, in a warning to the private defense industry, the Pentagon said it would be "restructuring contracts to reduce their scope and cost."

â¿¿Health: The National Institutes of Health would lose $1.6 billion, trimming cancer research and drying up funds for hundreds of other research projects. Health departments would give 424,000 fewer tests for the AIDS virus. More than 373,000 people may not receive mental health services.

â¿¿Food and agriculture: About 600,000 low-income pregnant women and new mothers would lose food aid and nutrition education. Meat inspectors could be furloughed up to 15 days, shutting meatpacking plants intermittently and costing up to $10 billion in production losses.

â¿¿Homeland Security: Fewer border agents and facilities for detained illegal immigrants. Reduced Coast Guard air and sea operations, furloughed Secret Service agents and weakened efforts against cyberthreats to computer networks. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund would lose more than $1 billion.

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