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Congress Brainstorms Options to Avert Defense and Poverty Cuts

iStockPhoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Back when Congress was trying to reach an agreement to raise the debt limit, leaders from both parties decided they’d only be able to work together with the threat of across-the-board spending cuts hanging over their heads.

So they passed a bill in 2011 that pledged just such across-the-board cuts starting next year, which would affect social spending and the Pentagon budget if Congress couldn’t find a way to work together to find a larger solution to Washington’s problems.

And now, after failing to reach that bigger solution, the drastic across-the-board cuts are looming.

Congress is trying to find a way to undo some of the spending cuts on Capitol Hill before they take effect.  They call it “sequestration” for shorthand, and the automatic budget cuts would drastically reduce social spending and lead to the smallest U.S. military since 1940.

But which priority should be saved?

The drastic automatic spending cuts that could kick in at the end of this year have launched a new congressional quarrel over national priorities and which budget should be saved -- the Pentagon or social services.

The law requires $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts equally divided between defense and domestic programs, over the next decade, with the first $109 billion in savings due to take effect on Jan. 2, 2013.

The House Budget committee began marking up a bill on Monday that would replace the sequestration cuts with alternative spending reductions.  Later this week, the House is expected to vote on the GOP’s proposal.

Republicans warn that the cuts would place an unfair burden on troops and military families, who would suffer the brunt of Washington’s failure to budget responsibly.

“In our view, we shouldn’t be taking more from hardworking Americans to fix Washington’s mistakes,” Rep. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget committee, said on Capitol Hill Monday.  “Instead, we should be solving the problem with structural reforms to our entitlement programs to make them strong and sustainable.”

The vast majority of Democrats agree with most Republicans that Congress must avoid the devastating effects of the sequestration, but assert that the GOP goes about it the wrong way, prioritizing defense spending and protecting tax cuts for the wealthy, while undercutting the country’s social safety net and other programs intended to build the middle class.

Even if the House successfully passes its alternative package -- a vote is expected Thursday -- the Senate is unlikely to approve an identical version of the cuts, further complicating replacing the sequestration.

Congressional sources say they don’t expect the sequestration problem to be resolved until after the November election, during the lame duck session.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio