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.
Obama formally enacted the reductions a few hours before the midnight deadline required by law. Yet their impact had been felt thousands of miles away well before then. 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, 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 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.
Under the law, Obama had until midnight to formally order the cuts. 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.
Obama declined to say if he bore any of the responsibility for the coming cuts, and expressed bemusement 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" as he reached for 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.
Ironically, they derive from a budget dispute they were supposed to help resolve back in the fall of 2011. At the time, a congressional Supercommittee was charged with identifying at least $1.2 trillion in deficit savings over a decade as part of an attempt to avoid a first-ever government default. The president and Republicans agreed to create a fallback of that much in across-the-board cuts, designed to be so unpalatable that it would virtually assure the panel struck a deal.
The Supercommittee dissolved in disagreement, though. And while Obama and Republicans agreed to a two-month delay last January, there was no bipartisan negotiation in recent days to prevent the first installment of the cuts from taking effect.
It isn't clear how long they will last.
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 at the White House on Friday.
Republicans speak dismissively of such pledges, saying that in earlier negotiations, the president has never been willing to close a deal with the type of changes he often says he will accept.