The White House conceded Wednesday that efforts to avoid automatic budget cuts are unlikely to succeed before they kick in and is initiating new talks with congressional leaders to confront seemingly intractable tax-and-spend issues.
President Barack Obama will meet at the White House Friday with House and Senate leaders of both parties on the same day the cuts, known in Washington-speak as a "sequester," take effect. This would put the White House and Congress essentially in the position of looking past the cuts to the next looming fiscal showdown: A March 27 deadline to continue government operations or force a government shutdown.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the White House talks, arranged Tuesday, are designed to be a "constructive discussion" about how to keep the cuts from having harmful consequences. Obama has been calling for a mix of spending cuts and tax increases to achieve deficit reduction goals.
The White House has warned that the $85 billion in cuts could affect everything from commercial flights to classrooms and meat inspections. The cuts would slash domestic and defense spending, leading to forced unpaid days off for hundreds of thousands of government workers.
The cuts begin taking effect virtually at midnight Friday, the White House said, but the impact won't be immediate. Federal workers would be notified next week that they will have to take up to a day every week off without pay, but the furloughs won't start for a month due to notification requirements. That will give negotiators some breathing room to keep working on a deal.
The Senate planned to vote on a Democratic stop gap measure on Thursday that would forestall the automatic cuts through the end of the year. It would replace them with longer-term cuts to the Pentagon and cash payments to farmers, and by installing a minimum 30 percent tax rate on income exceeding $1 million.
But Republicans oppose tax increases and will likely block the measure. Carney argued that such opposition would mean the cuts, known as a sequester in budget terms, would be the responsibility of Republicans.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Friday's session will focus on ways to reduce government spending, but he also said he will not back down on his opposition to any new revenues. McConnell, along with House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, will attend meeting at the White House.
"We can either secure those reductions more intelligently, or we can do it the president's way with across-the board cuts. But one thing Americans simply will not accept is another tax increase to replace spending reductions we already agreed to," said McConnell, R-Ky.
Carney said Obama also spoke briefly with congressional leaders Wednesday ahead of a ceremony in the Capitol to unveil a statue of civil rights heroine Rosa Parks. A Republican aide described the exchange as no more than brief pleasantries. Then Obama and House Speaker John Boehner jointly led the unveiling, standing with the statue between them as they grasped and pulled in opposite directions on the braided cord that held the covering.
With the cuts now imminent, the administration continued its campaign Wednesday to cast them in dire terms. Education Secretary Arne Duncan appeared in the White House briefing room to detail what he described as bad choices in reducing assistance to schools and early childhood programs.
"The only choice I can make would be to hurt fewer poor children and help more special needs kids, or do the opposite," Duncan said. "It's a no-win proposition."
He said the first to feel the pinch will be school districts in and around military bases and Native American reservations, entities which receive direct federal aid to make up for lower local property taxes.
Duncan's remarks came a day after the Department of Homeland Security announced that the forced cuts had prompted the federal immigration enforcement agency to start releasing illegal immigrants being held in immigrant jails across the country.
Carney on Wednesday said the decision was made by career immigration and customs enforcement officials, without input from the White House.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, at the White House to discuss legislation aimed at curtailing gun violence, said the automatic cuts were the equivalent of a "meat ax" and not carefully considered reductions in spending. But he scoffed at the dark scenarios that have come ahead of the deadline.
"There's a lot of posturing: 'I'm going to lay off my employees today unless you do something; we're going to close the hospitals down; we're going to take all the prisoners from jail and put them on the street,'" he said, mocking the claims. "Spare me. I live in that world. I mean, c'mon, let's get serious here."
No serious talks to avert the cuts have been under way, and Friday's meeting will be the first face-to-face discussion between Obama and Republican leaders this year.
Republicans were considering offering a measure that would give Obama authority to propose a rewrite to the 2013 budget to redistribute the cuts. Obama would be unable to cut defense by more than the $43 billion reduction that the Pentagon currently faces, and would also be unable to raise taxes to undo the cuts. The GOP plan would allow the Obama proposal to go into effect unless Congress passed a resolution to overturn them.
The idea is that money could be transferred from lower-priority accounts to accounts funding air traffic control or meat inspection. But the White House says that such moves would only offer slight relief. At the same time, however, it could take pressure off of Congress to address the sequester.
In the House, where Republicans in the last Congress passed legislation to replace the cuts, Boehner has said it's now up to Obama and the Senate to figure a way out. The Senate never took up the House-passed bills, which expired when the new Congress was seated in January.