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The federal government enters a controversial new phase of deficit cutting Friday, as an automatic trigger begins slicing budgets in some areas while leaving programs such as Medicare and Medicaid largely untouched. Here’s a look at what happens next:

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“It’s just not the most exciting issue for most people to talk about, but it affects every other policy thing that we care about, and it’s now the sand in the wheels,” she said. “It’s keeping government from working.”

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When it comes to the nation’s debt, payback time might be here.

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We come from different backgrounds, parties and pursuits but are bound by a common belief in the promise and purpose of America. After all, each of us has been the beneficiary of the choices made—and opportunities created—by previous generations of Americans.

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Less than one week before the so-called sequester imposes $120 billion in automatic cuts to federal spending, GOP lawmakers and the president are still juggling blame, with each side slamming the other for the failure to secure a deal.

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President Barack Obama renewed pressure on congressional Republicans to head off budget cuts that are due to begin on March 1, staging a White House appearance with emergency workers to illustrate jobs he said were at risk.

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Everyone paying attention to the battle over so-called sequestration knows that it would cut billions of dollars from government spending beginning March 1. But not everybody may know that those cuts wouldn’t all come at the same time — something that actually buys Congress more time to deal with the awkwardly named process.

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The country has a confidence problem, and Congress bears much of the responsibility for it.

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The United States faces two big risks to its economic prosperity, but both are avoidable. In the near-term, a still fragile recovery is struggling to take hold. Over the medium and long-term, our debt is projected to continue growing faster than the economy. It is simply on an unsustainable path.

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Economic growth will remain slow this year, CBO anticipates, as gradual improvement in many of the forces that drive the economy is offset by the effects of budgetary changes that are scheduled to occur under current law. After this year, economic growth will speed up, CBO projects, causing the unemployment rate to decline and inflation and interest rates to eventually rise from their current low levels. Nevertheless, the unemployment rate is expected to remain above 7½ percent through next year; if that happens, 2014 will be the sixth consecutive year with unemployment exceeding 7½ percent of the labor force—the longest such period in the past 70 years.

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With enormous struggle, the sluggish economy managed to create 2.2 million jobs last year. But beginning at the end of this month, at least half that amount — more than a million jobs — will start to disappear because of a mindless government austerity program that no one in Washington seems able to stop.

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Like suspense, confusion and midnight deals? Draw a big red circle around March.

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