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.