Court system braces for layoffs as clock on fiscal crisis ticks

The federal court system is bracing for the possibility of thousands of layoffs or furloughs next month, marking the latest branch of government to plan for the worst in case Congress and the White House fail to avert the looming fiscal crisis.

The cuts would force federal courts to lay off up to 2,000 employees or furlough 20,000 employees for 16 days, according to a Dec. 4  letter to federal chief judges around the country from the Judicial Conference of the United States.

David Sentelle, chairman of the executive committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, said even after cutting spending on information technology and other areas, "some local staff reductions" will be needed.

"On a national basis up to 2,000 court staff positions (10 percent of the courts' workforce) could still be lost, or alternatively, the equivalent of 16 furlough days for court staff could be required," he wrote, adding that the cuts would carry "significant adverse impacts on judiciary operations and services."

For most domestic programs, the cuts mean an 8.2 percent reduction in fiscal 2013 spending. For the federal court system, that means a $555 million cut, said Karen Redmond,  spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. To minimize the direct impact on employees, cuts will be spread out across the department which could mean limiting travel, promotions and spending on training.

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The budget cuts are required under last year's Budget Control Act unless lawmakers and the Obama administration can agree on a strategy for reducing long-term future deficits by $1.2 trillion.

Both sides have three weeks to hammer out a deal. If they fail, a set of severe tax hikes and spending cuts take place which some warn could cripple the country's economy and plunge it back into recession.

Last week, the White House budget office asked federal agencies to calculate more than $100 billion in spending cuts. About half the spending cuts would be to the military and the other half to domestic programs.

Pentagon officials say they, too, are looking for ways to slash their budget by billions. Spokesman George Little said the Office of Management and Budget told the department to begin looking for $500 billion cuts over the next decade. Little told Fox News that the department is hunting for programs to scale back or even eliminate and is working on a plan that could possibly affect millions of personnel.

"If we are going to be faced with the consequences of sequestration for a long period of time ... then at a certain point we may have to look at the defense strategy at least in the near term," he said.

On Sunday,  Obama and House Speaker John Boehner met at the White House for the first time in weeks. After their meeting, both sides released identical statements saying the "lines of communication remain open." The surprise face-to-face meeting came after the speaker reported "no progress" with his talks with the White House on Friday.

Last week, Boehner put a proposal on the table that included $800 billion in revenue increases over the next 10 years. Obama said it didn't go far enough.