Politics trumped progress on Friday as President Barack Obama and Republican leaders traded blame for $85 billion in forced spending cuts after they failed to come up with a compromise to avert the harshest impacts.
The president signed an order required by law that set in motion the automatic, government-wide cuts.
Obama and congressional leaders from both parties met for about 45 minutes at the White House, but no agreement emerged to avert the cuts that both sides oppose.
After weeks of campaign-style events intended to inspire public outrage over the cuts, Obama sought to temper his description of their impact while making clear he thinks Republican intransigence prevented a deal to avoid the economic harm they’ll cause.
“We will get through this,” he told reporters. “This is not going to be an apocalypse as some people have said. It’s just dumb and it’s going to hurt.”
In a sign of the potential impact, the Department of Justice sent furlough notices to employees that warned they may be forced to take days off without pay in coming months.
Similar furloughs, as well as reduced services, were expected at other agencies if the cuts don’t get replaced or eliminated. Military leaders have warned of impaired readiness of U.S. forces.
However, the full impact of the cuts weren’t expected until April at the earliest.
The cuts amount to roughly 9% for a broad range of non-defense programs and 13% for the Pentagon over the rest of the current fiscal year, which ends on September 30.
They were included in a 2011 deal to raise the federal borrowing limit as an unacceptable outcome if Congress failed to agree on a comprehensive deficit reduction plan.
However, election-year politics stymied progress on such a deal, leading to the situation Friday in which both sides acknowledged being unable to prevent something neither wanted.
“There are smarter ways to cut spending,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, after the meeting with Obama.
Boehner repeated his past assertion that the GOP-led House has offered proposals to replace the forced spending cuts while the Democratic-led Senate has not, as well as his party’s opposition to any increased tax revenue to offset the forced spending cuts.
Others who also took part in the White House gathering were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
In the White House briefing room, Obama told reporters that Republicans in Congress “allowed these cuts to happen because they refuse to budge on closing a single wasteful (tax) loophole to help reduce the deficit.”
“As recently as yesterday, they decided to protect special interest tax breaks for the well off and the well connected and they think that that’s apparently more important than protecting our military or middle class families from the pain of these cuts,” Obama said.
He was referring to a procedural vote on Thursday in which Senate Republicans blocked a Democratic proposal that called for eliminating some tax loopholes as part of a package with spending cuts.
Boehner and Republicans say the president and Democrats have yet to propose a serious plan to reduce spending, including costly entitlement programs, on a scale necessary to bring chronic federal deficits and debt under control.
Both Obama and Boehner foreshadowed the next major spending showdown – a March 27 deadline for Congress to authorize funding to keep the government running for the rest of the fiscal year.
Boehner told reporters that the House will take up a measure next week to authorize federal funding beyond that deadline.
“The president and leaders agreed legislation should be enacted this month to prevent a government shutdown while we continue to work on a solution to replace the” forced spending cuts, said a statement by Boehner’s office.
Although the funding measure is unconnected to the spending cuts, Obama indicated he was open to a broader agreement that would resolve both issues.
“I do know that there are Republicans in Congress who privately, at least, say that they would rather close tax loopholes then let these cuts go through,” said Obama in response to questions from reporters.
“… In the coming days and the coming weeks, I’m going to keeping on reaching out to them — both individually and as groups of senators or members of the House — and say to them, ‘Let’s fix this, not just for a month or two, but for years to come,’ because the greatest nation on Earth does not conduct its business in month-to-month increments or by careening from crisis to crisis,” Obama said.
By Jessica Yellin and Tom Cohen
CNN’s Dana Bash, Deirdre Walsh, Ted Barrett and Terry Frieden contributed to this report.
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