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 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, 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.
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 through the end of the budget year on Sept 30, exposing civilian workers to furloughs and defense contractors to possible cancellations.
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.
What the budget cuts could mean:
One of the Navy's premiere warships, the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, sits pier-side in Norfolk, Va., its tour of duty delayed. The carrier and its 5,000-person crew were to leave for the Persian Gulf on Feb. 8, along with the guided-missile cruiser USS Gettysburg.
Veterans' funerals at Arlington National Cemetery could be cut to 24 a day from 31, meaning delays in burials for troops from past wars. Troops killed in action in Afghanistan will be the priority — they are usually laid to rest within two weeks, Army spokesman George Wright said. But overall funerals would be reduced by about 160 a month because of furloughs among civilian employees who work with families to schedule services as well as furloughs among crews that dig the graves and do other grounds work.
Pentagon investments in countering cyberthreats and nuclear proliferation will be at risk, says Michael Vickers, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence. And the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, says the agency could be hit hard because it depends heavily on military and civilian personnel to accomplish its mission.
Coast Guard rescue aircraft will fly fewer hours and cutters will patrol the seas for fewer hours, says Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp. Emergencies will be a priority and interdictions of illegal immigrants, drugs and illegal fishing could decline.
Hundreds of illegal immigrants have been freed from jail across the country. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say they had reviewed several hundred cases of immigrants and decided to put them on an "appropriate, more cost-effective form of supervised release" in a moved started Tuesday.
There could be an estimated 2,100 fewer food safety inspections and increased risks to consumers because of the cuts and the fact that lack of a new 2013 budget means the Food and Drug Administration is held at last year's spending level. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg says most of the effects wouldn't be felt for a while, and the agency won't have to furlough workers.
Hospitals, doctors and other Medicare providers will see a 2 percent cut in government reimbursements because once cutback takes effect, Medicare will reimburse them at 98 cents on the dollar. But they aren't complaining because the pain could be a lot worse if President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans actually did reach a sweeping agreement to reduce federal deficits. Automatic cuts taking effect Friday would reduce Medicare spending by about $100 billion over a decade. But Obama had put on the table $400 billion in health care cuts, mainly from Medicare. And Republicans wanted more.
The nation's busiest airports could be forced to close some of their runways, causing widespread flight delays and cancellations. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood predicts flights to cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco could have delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours because fewer controllers will be on duty.
Though the spending cuts are scheduled to go into effect on Friday, furloughs of controllers won't kick in until April because the Federal Aviation Administration is required by law to give its employees advance notice. In addition to furloughs, the FAA is planning to eliminate midnight shifts for air traffic controllers at 60 airport towers, close over 100 control towers at smaller airports and reduce preventative maintenance of equipment.
Visiting hours at all 398 national parks are likely to be cut and sensitive areas would be blocked off to the public. Thousands of seasonal workers looking for jobs would not be hired, according to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Salazar and National Park Service director Jon Jarvis said visitors would encounter locked restrooms, fewer rangers and trash cans emptied less frequently.
More than half of the nation's 2.1 million government workers may be required to take furloughs if agencies are forced to trim budgets. At the Pentagon alone that could mean 800,000 civilian workers would be off for 22 days each, spread across more than five months — and lose 20 percent of their pay over that period. Other federal agencies are likely to furlough several hundred thousand more workers.
Some 70,000 students enrolled in pre-kindergarten Head Start would be cut from the program and 14,000 teachers would lose their jobs. For students with special needs, the cuts would eliminate some 7,200 teachers and aides. The Education Department is also warning that the cuts will impact up to 29 million student loan borrowers and that some lenders may have to lay off staff or even close. Some of the 15 million college students who receive grants or work-study assignments at some 6,000 colleges would also see changes.
Congressional trips overseas likely will take a hit. House Speaker John Boehner told Republican members in a closed-door meeting that he's suspending the use of military aircraft for official trips by House members. Lawmakers typically travel on military planes for fact-finding trips to Afghanistan or Pakistan, or other congressional excursions to foreign locales.
Cleanup of radioactive waste at nuclear sites across the country would be delayed. The Energy Department says the cuts would postpone work at the department's highest-risk sites, including the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash., where six tanks are leaking radioactive waste left over from decades of plutonium production for nuclear weapons. Other high-risk sites facing work delays are the Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee, Savannah River Site in South Carolina and the Idaho National Laboratory.Comment on this story
Millions of taxpayers may not be able get responses from Internal Revenue Service call centers and taxpayer assistance centers. The cuts would delay IRS responses to taxpayer letters and force the agency to complete fewer tax return reviews, reducing its ability to detect and prevent fraud. The IRS says this could result in billions of dollars in lost revenue to the government, complicating deficit reduction efforts. However, the IRS says the cuts shouldn't delay tax refunds.
More than 3.8 million people jobless for six months or longer could see their unemployment benefits reduced by as much as 9.4 percent. Thousands of veterans would not receive job counseling. Fewer Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors could mean 1,200 fewer inspections of dangerous work sites.