(CNN) - Today is the day lawmakers have known about since August 2011: the day those forced federal spending cuts kick in.
This Friday is also a day many never expected would come. After all, the cuts known as sequestration were designed to be so draconian that lawmakers would be forced to compromise and avoid them.
But they haven’t, and as lawmakers left Washington to begin their weekend on Thursday, so left any prospect of avoiding the cuts that President Barack Obama and his administration have warned will lead to long airport lines and fewer air traffic safety controllers; federal government furloughs and layoffs; cuts to food inspection and border security programs; and education funding decreases that will shut young students out of Head Start programs.
For all of the dire warnings, Obama acknowledged Wednesday that the cuts are “not a cliff, but it is a tumble downward.” He’ll set the cuts in motion on Friday with a stroke of his pen.
He is required to sign an order enacting the spending cuts by 11:59 p.m. Friday and will do so privately, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday.
Before that happens, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will meet with top congressional leaders: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
But Friday is seen by many as too late to reach a deal averting the cuts, especially with Congress out of town for the weekend.
After Obama signs the order, the Office of Management and Budget will send to Congress a detailed accounting of the cuts – how much from which agencies and which accounts. Every "program, project and activity" has to be trimmed without regard for what it is, according to the OMB.
Those who are employed by the government or rely on federal agencies’ spending are expected to feel the effects first. From there, the effects of the sequester will ripple outward across the economy.
The Obama administration has said the law gives them no leeway to spare one budget line at the expense of another, and insiders expect the cuts to be about 9% for nondefense programs and 13% for defense accounts.
What agencies do have some discretion over is how they roll out the cuts. In some cases, furloughs and other cuts could be backloaded, scheduling them to take effect at a greater rate later in the year in hopes that Congress will reach a deal to replace the sequester that has so far been elusive.
OMB sent affected federal agencies a letter on Wednesday reminding them to prepare for the cuts. Some agencies have already given employees their official 30-day notice of upcoming furloughs. Others are expected to follow soon, and budget uncertainty has already caused some agencies to cut back.
Congress delayed the cuts from triggering in January at the time of the fiscal cliff. The two month delay from January 1 to March 1, however, made the cuts steeper than the original 5% for nondefense spending and 8% for defense programs.
Not everyone is convinced these forced spending cuts are a bad idea. Some deficit hawks see them as one way to reduce ballooning federal spending and others who favor reducing military spending see their virtue, too.
Altogether, the cuts will amount to some $85 billion dollars this fiscal year, which ends September 30.
While today means the end to one fiscal showdown, fans of Washington financial wrangling have another date to anticipate: March 27. That’s the deadline for Congress to extend the continuing resolution that’s funding the government.
- CNNMoney.com’s Jeanne Sahadi and CNN’s Gregory Wallace contributed to this report