WASHINGTON -- Gridlocked once more, President Barack 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 ordered the cuts required by midnight, their impact was felt. 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, then placed the blame on Republicans for the broad cuts. "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 comprehensive deficit-cutting that includes higher taxes.
Republicans said they wanted deficit cuts, too, but not new taxes. "The president got his tax hikes on Jan. 1," House Speaker John Boehner said. Now, he said after the meeting, 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.
While they clashed, Obama and Republicans appeared determined to contain their disagreement.
Boehner said the House will act 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 cuts by their Washington-speak name.
Barring a quick deal in the next week or so to call it off, the sequester's 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 has warned of long lines at airports as security staff are furloughed, of teacher layoffs in some classrooms and adverse impacts on maintenance at the nation's parks.
The president told reporters the effects 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, most of which require advance notice and can't begin until next month.
Obama expressed amusement at any suggestion he had the ability to force Republicans to agree with him.
"I am not a dictator. I'm the president," he said. "So, ultimately, if Mitch McConnell or John Boehner say, "We need to go to catch a plane," I can't have Secret Service block the doorway, right?" He also declared he couldn't perform a "Jedi mind meld" to sway opponents, mixing Star Wars and Star Trek in a science fiction metaphor.
Neither the president nor Republicans claimed to like what was about to happen. Obama called the cuts "dumb," and GOP lawmakers have long said they were his idea in the first place.
Of particular concern to lawmakers in both parties is a lack of flexibility in the allocation of cuts due to take effect over the next few months. That problem will ease beginning with the new budget year on Oct. 1, when Congress and the White House will be able to negotiate changes in the way the reductions are made.
For his part, Obama suggested he was content to leave them in place until Republicans change their minds about raising taxes by closing loopholes.
"If Congress comes to its senses a week from now, a month from now, three months from now, then there's a lot of open running room there for us to grow our economy much more quickly and to advance the agenda of the American people dramatically," he said.
"So this is a temporary stop on what I believe is the long-term, outstanding prospect for American growth and greatness."
But Republicans say they are on solid political ground. At a retreat in January in Williamsburg, Va., GOP House members reversed course and decided to approve a debt limit increase without demanding cuts. They also agreed not to provoke a government shutdown, another traditional pressure point, as leverage to force Obama and Democrats to accept savings in benefit programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
Obama has said repeatedly he's willing to include benefit programs in deficit-cutting legislation -- as long as more tax revenue is part of the deal. "I am prepared to do hard things and to push my Democratic friends to do hard things," he said Friday.
Republicans speak dismissively of such pledges.