It’s the kind of risky procrastination that any teenager facing a book-report deadline would recognize.
With $85 billion in mandatory budget cuts due to start kicking in at midnight, President Obama will sit down with congressional leaders at the White House on Friday morning to discuss ways to avoid those cuts. It will be their first face-to-face meeting on the subject, although they’ve known for two months that the deadline was approaching.
Neither side holds out much hope that the meeting will produce a solution. But neither can the participants — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker John A. Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — afford the political backlash of failing to meet.
Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican, suggested Thursday that the president’s invitation to meet was too little, too late.
“He finally invited Speaker Boehner and me to discuss the sequester … the day it takes effect,” Mr. McConnell said. “In short, instead of changing as they promised, Washington Democrats are just turning back to the same old campaign-first strategy they’ve employed for years.”
The law mandating the so-called sequester cuts requires the president to sign an order for the across-the-board spending reductions to begin. White House press secretary Jay Carney said unless the parties reach a deal, Mr. Obama would sign such an order sometime before midnight.
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“11:59 and 59 seconds, because he’s ever hopeful,” Mr. Carney joked.
The likelihood of the sequester cuts taking effect grew Thursday as both sides repeated their intractable negotiating positions. The White House said it would not accept spending cuts without revenue increases from eliminating certain tax breaks. Republican leaders said they will not agree to raising more tax revenue, and called on the administration to commit to real spending cuts.
“I’m happy to work with the president,” said Mr. Boehner, Ohio Republican. “But the House has done its job.”
The House passed two measures last year that would have replaced the sequester, for example, by sparing the Defense Department from cuts and instead targeting programs such as food stamps. Senate Democrats refused to consider the measures.
Senate Republicans failed in an attempt Thursday to approve a measure that would have given Mr. Obama more discretion in how to impose the cuts. The White House said it would have vetoed the plan.
“No amount of flexibility changes the fact that these severe cuts threaten thousands of middle-class jobs and slash vital services for children, seniors and our troops and military families,” Mr. Carney said.
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Mr. Obama is seeking as much as $580 billion in new tax revenue by closing loopholes for mostly wealthy individuals and ending tax breaks for oil companies and others. Republicans say they gave the president enough tax increases in January, when tax rates rose on households earning more than $450,000 per year and payroll taxes increased 2 percent for all wage earners.
Seeking to exert more pressure on Republican lawmakers, the president has been warning the public of dire consequences from the cuts, ranging from long lines at airports to the increased risk of a terrorist attack. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Thursday that some school districts have already begun to lay off teachers, citing a district in West Virginia, but officials there said Mr. Duncan was mistaken.
As if rehearsing for Friday’s meeting, Mr. McConnell took to the Senate floor Thursday to address the president.
“Surely, you can find a little more than 2 percent to cut from the federal budget,” Mr. McConnell said. “And surely you can do it without raining down a phony Armageddon on American families. They had to find ways to cope with 2 percent less in their paychecks last month after the payroll tax went back up. Why can’t Washington?”
He concluded, “The time for games is over.”
But with negotiators’ first meeting to take place on the same day as the cuts are starting, nobody really believes the games have ended.