WASHINGTON -- 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 Obama will meet at the White House on 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 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 administration has said.
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 one day off without pay every week, but the furloughs won't start for a month because of notification requirements. That will give negotiators some breathing room to keep working on a deal.
The Senate planned to vote on a Democratic stopgap measure Tursday 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.
However, Republicans oppose tax increases and likely would block the measure. Carney argued that such opposition would mean the cuts 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 said he will not back down on his opposition to any new tax increases. McConnell, along with House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, will attend the 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," said McConnell, R-Ky. "But one thing Americans simply will not accept is another tax increase to replace spending reductions we already agreed to."
Carney said Obama also spoke briefly with congressional leaders Wednesday before 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 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 on Wednesday continued its campaign 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.