The leaders found a solution, according to aides on both sides. In among the real cuts, they would mix in others that looked huge on paper but would turn out small in real life.
"The administration offered, and the Republican leadership accepted, cuts in stores of funding that . . . were unlikely to be used in the future," said Richard Kogan, a former Obama administration official who is now at the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "This was conscious on both sides."
The final deal itself ran to 176 pages and included more than 250 individual reductions. Some of them certainly caused real-life sacrifice: one cut to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration helped delay a crucial weather-satellite program, according to the Obama administration.
But in other cases, sacrifice was minimal. Congress, for instance, "cut" $14.6 million from its own budget to build the Capitol Visitor Center. That changed nothing. The center was already built.
To sketch the bill's biggest impacts, The Washington Post focused on the 16 largest individual cuts. Each, in theory, sliced at least $500 million from the federal budget. Together, they accounted for $26.1 billion, two-thirds of the total.
In four of those cases, the real-world impact was difficult to measure. The Department of Homeland Security officially declined to comment about a $557 million reduction. The Department of State, the Department of Agriculture and the Federal Emergency Management Agency — whose cuts totaled $1.9 billion — simply did not answer The Post's questions despite repeated requests over the past month.
Among the other 12 cases, there were at least seven where the cuts caused only minimal real-world disruptions or none at all.
Often, this was made possible by a little act of Washington magic. Agencies got credit for killing what was, in reality, already dead.