WASHINGTON -- Gridlocked once more, President Obama and Republican congressional leaders refused to budge in their budget standoff Friday as $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts bore down on individual Americans and the nation's still-recovering economy.
"None of this is necessary," said the president after a sterile White House meeting that portended a long standoff.
Even before Obama formally signed the order for the cuts required by midnight, their impact was felt thousands of miles away. In Seattle, the King County Housing Authority announced it had stopped issuing housing vouchers under a federal program that benefits "elderly or disabled households, veterans, and families with children."
The president met with top lawmakers for less than an hour at the White House, and then sought repeatedly to fix the blame on Republicans for the broad spending reductions and any damage that they inflict. "They've allowed these cuts to happen because they refuse to budge on closing a single wasteful loophole to help reduce the deficit," he said, renewing his demand for a comprehensive deficit-cutting deal that includes higher taxes.
Republicans said they wanted deficit cuts, too, but not tax increases. "The president got his tax hikes on Jan. 1," House Speaker John Boehner told reporters, a reference to a $600 billion increase on higher wage earners that cleared Congress on the first day of the year. Now, he said after the meeting, it is time to take on "the spending problem here in Washington."
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was equally emphatic. " I will not be part of any back-room deal, and I will absolutely not agree to increase taxes," he vowed in a written statement.
At the same time they clashed, Obama and Republicans appeared determined to contain their disagreement.
Boehner said the House will pass legislation next week to extend routine funding for government agencies beyond the current March 27 expiration. "I'm hopeful that we won't have to deal with the threat of a government shutdown while we're dealing with the sequester at the same time," he said, referring to the new cuts by their Washington-speak name.
Obama said he, too, wanted to keep the two issues separate.
White House officials declined to say precisely when the president would formally order the cuts. Under the law, he had until midnight. Barring a quick deal in the next week or so to call them off, the impact eventually is likely to be felt in all reaches of the country.
The Pentagon will absorb half of the $85 billion required to be sliced between now and the end of the budget year on Sept 30, exposing civilian workers to furloughs and defense contractors to possible cancellations. Said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, only a few days on the job: "We will continue to ensure America's security" despite the challenge posed by an "unnecessary budget crisis."
The administration also has warned of long lines at airports as security personnel are furloughed, of teacher layoffs in some classrooms and adverse impacts on maintenance at the nation's parks.
The announcement by the housing agency in Seattle was an early indication of what is likely to hit as the cuts take effect. It said it was taking the action "to cope with the impending reduction in federal funding," adding that it normally issues 45 to 50 vouchers per month.
After days of dire warnings by administration officials, the president told reporters the effects of the cuts would be felt only gradually.
"The longer these cuts remain in place, the greater the damage to our economy - a slow grind that will intensify with each passing day," he said. Much of the budget savings will come through unpaid furloughs for government workers, and those won't begin taking effect until next month.