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Fewer conferences, less travel? Sequester prompts cutbacks some have sought for years

Amid the doom and gloom over looming budget cuts, some are starting to see a silver lining. 

The government might finally be forced to cut the waste, fiscal hawks say, and officials are already beginning to do away with some of the costly trappings of their office. On Thursday, the White House even suggested agency heads cut back on conference spending, a target of congressional ridicule for years. 

"Hopefully, we can begin moving in the direction of getting our economy moving by getting control of government overspending and debt," Tim Phillips, president of the conservative Americans for Prosperity, told FoxNews.com Thursday. "This is at least a modest step in that direction." 

Barring any shock developments, the sequester will go into effect Friday. The Senate held votes Thursday afternoon on dueling bills to avert the cuts, but both failed. The Republican bill died, garnering just 38 votes; the Democratic proposal garnered 51 votes, but not the 60 necessary to advance. President Obama next will convene a meeting with the top four congressional leaders Friday in Washington, to discuss the way forward -- as the sequester battle now merges with the looming debate over an expiring budget bill. 

Few are actually rejoicing over these specific cuts, though Democrats have tried to give that impression about their Republican colleagues. 

"There are Republicans dancing in the streets, happy with the thought that sequestration will happen," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., claimed Thursday. 

But the fact that Washington has stopped kicking the can on the cuts -- which were enacted in 2011 as part of the debt-ceiling debate and amount to $1 trillion over the next decade -- is seen by many Republicans as a win. Republicans aides claim to have the upper hand going into budget talks since they want the spending reductions. 

Neither side wants these specific reductions, which indiscriminately shave budgets across the board and hit the military particularly hard. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Thursday he will "do anything" to scratch the defense portion of the sequester. But Republicans say the cuts don't have to be as bad as the administration is making them sound, especially if Congress grants the administration more flexibility. The pressure of the deadline being passed could compel both sides to reach an amicable agreement in the coming weeks that still shaves the deficit. 

Already, Washington is starting to show signs of more fiscal discipline. 

House Speaker John Boehner announced Wednesday that he is suspending the use of military aircraft for official travel by House lawmakers. 

And Vice President Biden said the sequester made him rethink the military flights he takes to his home state of Delaware. He said Wednesday that he's going to go back to taking the train. 

Biden, known for his fondness of Amtrak, was upbeat about that particular part of sequester. 

"I was able to say, 'Look guys, I've got to take the train now -- it's cheaper than flying.' So I get to take the train again," Biden said. 

And the White House budget office on Thursday told agency heads they should scrutinize new spending like "hiring new personnel" and issuing "monetary awards to employees." Addressing a pet peeve of fiscally conservative lawmakers, the office also urged against spending money on "new training, conferences and travel." The government spent hundreds of millions of dollars on conferences in fiscal 2012. 

For sure, the negative effects from the sequester will eventually be felt. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney warned Thursday of "dramatic effects." 

This includes some steps that have already gotten underway, including the release of low-priority illegal immigrants from Arizona jails and the docking of an aircraft carrier that was supposed to go to the Persian Gulf. 

Tens of thousands of federal workers are expected to be furloughed. Unemployment checks could be reduced. FAA cuts are, according to the Transportation Department, expected to result in longer delays for travelers. The Food and Drug Administration warned Thursday that the cuts will result in fewer food safety inspections. 

Phillips claimed Democrats are trying to make the sequester "as painful as possible," and that it will be up to conservatives to "fight" to prove that it doesn't have to be a catastrophe. 

"We've just got to keep reminding the American people this is 2 cents on the dollar, for a government that is spending a trillion more than it takes in," he said. 

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell made the same argument Thursday. "Instead of directing his Cabinet secretaries to trim waste in their departments, he's going after first responders and teachers and almost any other sympathetic constituency you can think of," he said, calling this attitude "nonsense." 

Republicans want to make sure that if any package replaces the automatic spending cuts, it is replaced by spending cuts alone -- their unsuccessful bill Thursday would have given Obama more flexibility to spread the cuts around. Democrats, by contrast, want the package to be replaced with a mix of spending cuts and tax increases. 

"Republicans should give Congress true flexibility," Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said Thursday. "Flexibility to cut wasteful subsidies, flexibility to close unnecessary tax loopholes, and flexibility to ask the richest of the rich to contribute a little bit more. Instead they've completely become inflexible."

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