President Barack Obama will summon US congressional leaders to the White House on Friday, the day across-the-board spending cuts that may badly dent the economic recovery come into force.
The talks, at the height of a political standoff, will group Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid and House Democratic boss Nancy Pelosi.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama invited the leaders for a “constructive discussion” about the impact of the $85 billion of automatic spending cuts, an indiscriminate measure known as the “sequester.”
But some Republicans privately complained that the fact that the meeting was called for Friday — the day the cuts come into force — meant the White House was not serious about stopping the sequester.
“The meeting Friday is an opportunity for us to visit with the President about how we can all keep our commitment to reduce Washington spending,” said McConnell.
“We can either secure those reductions more intelligently, or we can do it the President’s way with across-the board cuts,” he said, reiterating the Republican refusal raise new revenues by closing tax loopholes.
The automatic spending cuts totaling $85 billion this year are due to kick in on March 1, and wrangling between Obama and Republicans on an alternative way to trim the deficit has stalled attempts to subvert them.
The painful, automatic budget cuts were envisioned as a mechanism to defuse a previous spending showdown by forcing both sides into a deal to cut the deficit, but Washington is so dysfunctional that no agreement has been reached.
Republicans blame Obama for the sequester, saying it was his idea, though the White House points out that Republicans in the House and Senate voted for it before the president signed it into law.
The White House has warned of a “perfect storm” of widespread furloughs, nationwide airport delays and weaker US border security. It says US military readiness will be hurt and public and emergency services curtailed.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters that some teachers could get furloughed and government subsidies for education for poor children and those with special needs could be hit.
“Kids are going to get hurt, that’s just the reality,” Duncan said, as he became the latest cabinet secretary to address the impact of the sequester in a White House public relations offensive.
There was little sign on Wednesday of any real efforts to halt the sequester.
Several bills being readied for the floor in Congress, though the measures were more political theatrics than a genuine bid to halt the cuts.
Democrats are working on what Reid called a “balanced” bill which would close many tax loopholes to raise revenues and make targeted spending cuts. The measure is not expected to pass however.
Republicans are working on several approaches — one of which would give Obama authority to mitigate the arbitrary nature of the cuts and to choose where to slice the budget.
The White House however has said such an approach is unworkable and some senior Republicans are suspicious of handing more power to the White House.
New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was at the White House on Wednesday to discuss gun control efforts, condemned posturing in Washington, but said the impact of the sequester would not be immediately felt.
“In all fairness on Monday we’ll be able to police the streets. There will be a fire engine that responds, an ambulance, our teachers will be in front of the classroom. If there’s snow we’ll be able to plow,” he said.
“It’s something that takes a while to implement.”
Obama is required by law to issue the sequestration order by 11.59 pm on March 1 and his office of Management and Budget will transmit a report to Congress detailing the exact cuts to be made, a US official said.