The nation's top four lawmakers arrived at the White House Friday morning, pessimistic they will be able to resolve the impasse over $85 billion in across-the-board budget cuts that begin at midnight.
The meeting began at 10:18 -- just a smidge more than 12 hours before the sequester was scheduled to begin.
This fiscal dilemma has played out differently from the previous ones in the sense that the chief players -- Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) -- have not met at all throughout it. There have been virtually no negotiations between the White House and Congress, as both sides have fiercely clung to their starting points --Obama has insisted that a solution include a balance of spending cuts and new revenues, while Boehner has dismissed any tax hikes out of hand.
And with the sequester set to hit at 11:59 pm. on Friday night, not much is expected to happen at the White House meeting Friday morning. Republicans even said as much before the meeting happened.
That's precisely where the disagreement lies. Boehner and McConnell are opposed to Obama's plan to close what the president describes as tax loopholes to help offset the cuts, which will disproportionally hit the Pentagon and other military spending. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) favor raising more revenue to blunt the cuts.
Lawmakers that oversee the nation's Armed Services are livid.
"I have never in my lifetime seen such a lack of leadership and truth-telling emanating from the White House and from our commander-in-chief," said Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee who has served in Congress since 1993.
Republicans have been plagued by a muddled message. Deficit hawks say Obama is exaggerating the cuts, while defense hawks say the cuts are far too deep.
"In the Congress, there's 435 people, we can't all be experts in everything," McKeon said, swiping at people who say the cuts won't be damaging. "We have had the opportunity to hear from the chiefs, those who are on the battle line. We've had the opportunity to go to Afghanistan, to go to Iraq, to go to hotspots around the world and see, we have the greater knowledge of how the impact of these cuts will be on our national security."
Both sides have tried to replace the cuts.
The House passed two bills during the 112th Congress to replace the automatic cuts with what they dub smarter, more targeted spending reductions. But those bills were non-starters in the Senate. Even if the Senate and Obama agreed to those bills, they are non-operative in this new session of Congress.
The Senate on Thursday defeated two proposals to reverse the sequester: one Democratic proposal to raise revenue and cut spending, and a GOP bill that canceled the cuts, while giving authority to the president to cut spending more flexibly.
The battle will continue through the month of March. Government funding expires March 27. The House will act next week by passing a measure that funds the government, while giving more spending flexibility to the Pentagon.
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