By MICHAEL FALCONE ( @michaelpfalcone )
MEETING OF THE MINDS: This morning President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with House Speaker John Boehner, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at the White House in a last ditch attempt at compromise. But don't get your hopes up, ABC's Mary Bruce notes. By law, at some point today President Obama must issue an order formally initiating the cuts. No word yet on when that will happen, but he has until 11:59 pm.
DEAL OR NO DEAL?: ABC's Sunlen Miller reports that in advance of today's meeting at the White House, Sen. Mitch McConnell issued a stern warning: There will be "no last-minute, back-room deal": "We promised the American people that we would cut Washington spending, and the President signed those cuts into law," McConnell said. "Republicans have offered the President numerous solutions, including the flexibility he needs to secure those reductions more intelligently. I'm happy to discuss other ideas to keep our commitment to reducing Washington spending at today's meeting. But there will be no last-minute, back-room deal and absolutely no agreement to increase taxes."
THIS WEEK ON "THIS WEEK": As automatic spending cuts begin to take effect, White House economic adviser Gene Sperling and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., speak to George Stephanopoulos about what comes next in the battle over the budget, Sunday on "This Week." Plus, the powerhouse roundtable debates the budget showdown and all the week's politics, with ABC News' Matthew Dowd and Cokie Roberts; Democratic strategist James Carville; Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot; and Mia Love, Republican mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah. Tune in Sunday: http://abcnews.go.com/thisweek (h/t Imtiyaz Delawala)
ABC's Z. BYRON WOLF: Happy sequester day, America. While your leaders sit down for a working meeting in Washington consider that the last time they all sat down in a room for shop talk together the tragedy in Sandy Hook had not yet occurred, President Obama was still in his first term, it was before the world was almost struck by asteroids - twice - and the Pope found the time to resign and leave office. So baby steps. The sequester blame game and how the public responds to furloughs and airport security lines will end up being an appetizer to the real showdowns over government spending and the debt ceiling later this spring. If they wait another 73 days for another meeting the government will have shut down and the debt ceiling will be blown.
ABC's RICK KLEIN: Today we cut the deficit. It's being done in memorable fashion, a statement on 2013 if there ever was one: Through inaction, our leaders bitterly decided not to stop something designed for everyone to hate as much as possible. The best part is this just starts this round of the fight, with no indication that the next deadlines will do anything else to change perceptions enough to force compromise. Perhaps the path to fiscal sanity involves this much insanity, even more. But we are plumbing new depths of dysfunction, and neither side can claim today that they've done so much as proven a point.
ABC's ARLETTE SAENZ: It seems that even Vice President Joe Biden will be feeling the effects of the sequester. Biden said Wednesday that he will be back on the train and off Air Force Two to save a bit of money as the looming $85 billion in budget cuts are set to take place at the end of the day. "Now 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 at a meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General in Washington, DC on Wednesday. In a way it's a dream come true for Biden, who gained the nickname "Amtrak Joe" and took the train almost daily between Washington, DC and Wilmington, Del. as a senator. He had to switch to Air Force Two when he became vice president.
ABC's DEVIN DWYER: It's a curious thing, getting the White House to admit when it's fudged the facts. The issue is at the heart of a tiff between veteran journalist Bob Woodruff and senior administration officials over who originally proposed the idea of sequester. (Woodruff reports that it was Obama's idea, which the White House had disputed. Now officials discretely concede it.) It has also played out this week in the West Wing briefing room over Education Secretary Arne Duncan's unsubstantiated claim that the threat of sequester has forced some teachers from their jobs. Duncan said that a tide of "pink slips" for teachers was "starting," with some "getting notices that they can't come back this fall." There's no evidence that that's the case - even if some districts have warned of "possible" sequester-related layoffs later this fall. However small a point it may seem, the White House refuses to acknowledge the exaggeration. Spokesman Jay Carney on Thursday disavowed any knowledge of the school district Duncan was talking about. "I encourage you to make phone calls in the old-fashioned reporting sense to find out more if you like," he said. Later, however, aides from Carney's press shop were emailing a defense of Duncan: "it turns out the superintendent in that W.V. county backs Arne up after all," one wrote. The superintendent and three other county officials told ABC News unequivocally that there have been no sequester-related layoffs this year or any planned for next. The administration's pushback against Woodward and fact-checks of Duncan is the same: that the reports miss the forest for the trees. Maybe so. But you don't have a much of a forest unless your "trees" are standing.
ABC's MICHAEL FALCONE: The 2012 Republican presidential nominee is finally breaking his silence. It's been nearly four months since Mitt Romney's loss to President Obama last November, and this week he sat down with Fox News' Chris Wallace for his first post-election interview. "We were on a roller coaster, exciting and thrilling, ups and downs," Romney told Wallace in the interview that is set to air on Fox News Sunday. "But the ride ends, and then you get off. And it's not like, 'Oh, can't we be on a roller coaster the rest of our life?' It's like, no, the ride's over." He and his wife, Ann, reflect on the transition from the campaign bubble to being a "nobody" again (as Ann puts it). But what we'll really be watching for is Romney's own take on why he thinks he fell short in 2012, what he and his campaign operatives could have done differently , his analysis on where the Republican Party goes from here and whether he plans to become a player in party politics or remain behind the scenes.
WHAT WE'RE READING
"HOW BOTH SIDES BOTCHED THE SEQUESTER FIGHT," by the National Journal's Ron Brownstein. "Since the backlash against President George W. Bush's 'compassionate conservatism,' the GOP's unquestioned top priority has been to reduce the federal government's size and reach. Measured against that goal, the sequester is the budgetary equivalent of the Italian front during World War II: a bloody slog across a battlefield peripheral to the larger outcome. … Yet by refusing to consider more revenue in any future budget deal, House Republicans are precluding a bargain with Obama that tames entitlements. It's true that the president, buoyed by reelection, has rescinded entitlement-reform offers he considered during the debt-ceiling standoff in 2011 - and that his tactical mistake in January of extending the bulk of the Bush tax cuts has complicated the politics by forcing him to ask Republicans to vote to raise taxes a second time. But if the GOP advanced a plan balanced between entitlement reforms and revenues, similar to the construct that Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., floated this week, Obama would face enormous, probably irresistible, pressure to bend. Just as in the 2011 standoff, Republicans are underestimating the value of a Democratic president willing to provide a heat shield for entitlement reductions that would face initial public resistance. In this fight, Obama also appears myopic. While the first debt-ceiling collision with the GOP damaged both parties, polls show the public siding more with him than Republicans in the ensuing skirmishes." http://bit.ly/13t0AcQ
VIDEO OF THE DAY
ERIC HOLDER: TODAY THE COUNTRY IS LESS SAFE. Attorney General Eric Holder says the country is less safe because of the across-the-board spending cuts that go into effect today and that those who claim the administration has been fear mongering about the cuts simply don't have the facts straight. "This is something that is gonna have an impact on the safety of this country, and anybody who says that that's not true is either lying or saying something that runs contrary to the facts," Holder told ABC's Senior Justice Department Correspondent Pierre Thomas in an exclusive interview, pointing out that F.B.I. agents, ATF agents, and prosecutors will be furloughed because of the cuts. "We are gonna be a nation that is gonna be less safe, and that is a simple fact." The attorney general got emotional when talking about the Newtown tragedy, saying the day he toured Sandy Hook Elementary School after the shooting was his "worst day as attorney general." "Walking through Sandy Hook Elementary School and going into those classrooms and seeing the caked blood, seeing the crime scene photos of these little angels, was the most difficult thing that I've ever had to do in my professional life." WATCH: http://yhoo.it/WvOXdP ABC's Richard Coolidge, Jordyn Phelps, Eric Wray, Alexandra Dukakis, Jack Date, Jack Cloherty, Jason Ryan, Chris Carlson, and Gale Marcus contributed to this episode.
SIX QUESTIONS (AND ANSWERS) ABOUT THE SEQUESTER
by ABC's Chris Good ( @c_good)
"Sequestration." Even the word is enough to send shivers of fiscal panic, or sheer political malaise, down the spines of seasoned politicians and news reporters. And today, the across-the-board automatic budget cuts known as the sequester will almost certainly happen, a year and a half after its inception as an intentionally unpalatable event amid the stalemate of the debt-limit crisis in 2011. Now that the sequester will probably happen, here are some questions and answers about it: http://abcn.ws/YaNoEL
1. HOW BIG IS IT?
The cuts were originally slated for $109 billion this year, but after the fiscal-cliff deal postponed the sequester for two months by finding alternate savings, the sequester will amount to $85 billion over the remainder of the year. Over the rest of the year, nondefense programs will be cut by nine percent, and defense programs will be cut by 13 percent. If carried out over 10 years (as designed), the sequester will amount to $1.2 trillion in total.
2. WHAT WILL BE CUT, SPARED?
Most government programs will be cut, including both defense and non-defense spending, with the cuts distributed evenly (by dollar amount) over those two categories. Some vital domestic entitlements, however, will be spared. Social Security checks won't shrink; nor will Veterans Administration programs. Medicare benefits won't get cut, but payments to providers will shrink by two percent. The Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), food stamps, Pell grants, and Medicaid will all be shielded from the sequester.
3. WHY DOES IT HAVE TO BE SO BAD?
The sequester will mean such awful things because it forces agencies to cut things indiscriminately, instead of simply stripping money from their overall budgets. But some Republicans, including Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, have suggested that federal agencies have plenty of flexibility to implement these cuts while avoiding the worst of the purported consequences. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal accused President Obama of trying to "distort" the severity of the sequester. The federal government will still spend more money than it did last year, GOP critics of sequester alarmism have pointed out. The White House tells a different story. According to the Office of Management and Budget, the sequestration law forces agency heads to cut the same percentage from each program. If that program is for TSA agents checking people in at airports, the sequester law doesn't care, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano can't do anything about it.
4. WHEN WILL THE WORST OF IT START?
Most of the sequester apocalypse, of which Obama's Cabinet has warned, relates to government-worker furloughs, which won't begin until April, at the earliest. In most cases, government agencies must give workers 30 days' notice before furloughing them. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), for instance, expects some of its furloughs to begin April 7, but it's still haggling with unions over notification procedures. But other bad things could happen before then. State programs that rely on federal money will have to begin accounting for lesser funds as soon as President Obama orders the sequester into effect on Friday. Government contractors, meanwhile, will feel the cuts immediately.
5. WILL IT GET FIXED?
TBD. President Obama and congressional Republicans have each proposed their own ideas to avert the sequester, but the two sides haven't agreed yet. Given the sequester's all-around unpalatability, the likeliest scenario appears to be a short-term fix after the sequester kicks in for a few weeks.
6. HOW CAN IT GET FIXED?
President Obama and his GOP counterparts, distant as they are on matters of fiscal policy, have a few remaining options to keep the sequester from wreaking its oft-alleged, oft-doubted chaos. Here are some of those possibilities: http://abcn.ws/XKWaHt
IN THE NOTE'S INBOX
"SACRIFICING ENERGY IS NO WAY OUT OF SEQUESTER," an Op-Ed in The Hill by former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. "Washington has a massive spending problem. But pushing for tax increases on energy companies as a quick fix for our country's fiscal problems is about as nonsensical as it gets. In fact, such tax increases actually would slow economic growth even further. Our country needs its robust energy economy to continue growing. Without it, the United States diminishes a dynamic industry that, instead of laying off workers in the midst of the recession, actually managed to create tens of thousands of well-paying jobs right here at home. Eliminating certain oil and gas tax provisions, which are often misleadingly presented as 'subsidies,' would compromise the industry's ability to add even more jobs and boost economic growth. It would also be counterproductive and risk bringing our emerging U.S. energy renaissance to a grinding halt. … Slapping the energy industry with higher taxes would be a step in the wrong direction. It wouldn't help our country's fiscal mess, but it would reduce economic growth, job creation, and North American energy security while increasing not only the cost of energy but also the prices of the vast number of products that have an energy cost component." http://bit.ly/ZN8IE7
@ktumulty: Sequester has begun. Notice that slight shift of the earth on its axis?