WASHINGTON -- In a meeting planned for Friday, President Barack Obama will push Republican congressional leaders to accept higher tax revenue in order to avoid deep spending cuts set to take effect on the same day.
The Republicans are expected to reply that they already compromised at the beginning of the year, when they agreed to more than $600 billion in new taxes, according to officials in both camps.
The first formal meeting between Mr. Obama and congressional leaders over the spending cuts, known as the sequester, will come after weeks of finger-pointing by both sides. An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the president will push for specific solutions from Republicans, asking them to name one tax break they are willing to end to stop the spending cuts.
"What we haven't seen, when we hear Republican leaders adamantly refuse to consider revenue as part of deficit reduction, is anything like that same spirit of compromise or seriousness of purpose that I think you've seen demonstrated by the president," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday. "We remain hopeful that at some point, hopefully soon, that Republicans will understand the need to compromise here."
Republicans, though, cast doubt on whether the meeting will be useful. "The message my constituents keep sending is simply this: Replacing spending cuts that both parties have already agreed to, and which the president has already signed into law, with tax hikes is simply unacceptable," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "We're still ready to work with them to get something responsible done," he added. "But we can't do it alone."
The reductions in defense and domestic spending are expected to begin Friday, the same day Mr. Obama will meet at the White House with Mr. McConnell, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio; and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. The cuts would trim $85 billion from federal spending -- including congressional office budgets -- for the rest of fiscal year 2013.
The Senate plans to vote this afternoon on replacing the sequester in part with tax increases on millionaires. The Democratic bill is expected to fail, as is a GOP alternative. A high-ranking Senate aide has confirmed that the GOP proposal, crafted by Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and James Inhofe, R-Okla., is to be brought before the Senate today. It would still allow the deep automatic spending cuts to take effect Friday, but would authorize the president to decide where to cut within broad categories.
House Republicans were looking past the White House meeting Friday to the next front in the budget wars. They agreed to put a bill on the floor as soon as next week that would prevent a government shutdown March 27; that measure to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year would continue the sequester, while providing new protections from the cuts to the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs, positions opposed in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
As the sequester clock ticked down, anxiety over the potential consequences continued to rise Wednesday.
As part of belt-tightening prompted by the cuts, Mr. Boehner is curbing congressional trips abroad. He told a Wednesday meeting of his Republican Conference that only delegations headed to review the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq would be allowed to continue once the cuts take affect, according to Republicans in the room.
The head of the Federal Aviation Administration warned Wednesday of major flight delays and the closure of hundreds of air traffic control towers at smaller airports across the country. "Flights to major cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco could experience delays, in some instances up to 90 minutes during peak hours, because we'll have fewer controllers on staff," FAA administrator Michael Huerta said in a speech. "And delays in these major airports could ripple across the country."
Mr. Huerta said most of the agency's 47,000 employees would likely be furloughed one day every other week until the fiscal year ends in September. The FAA could be forced to close many of the 230 air traffic control towers at airports that are less busy, such as those in Boca Raton, Fla., and Joplin, Mo.
Last year, the House passed two bills that would have stopped the sequester and replaced some of the spending cuts with others. But the White House said the magnitude of the cuts was unacceptable and would imperil critical government programs. Instead, it has pushed for an alternative that includes spending cuts and new tax revenue, achieved by scaling back tax breaks that benefit the wealthy and certain industries.
At the start of the year, the two sides agreed to a deal that raised taxes on the wealthy, mainly by allowing the top rate to return to what it was during the Clinton administration. Since then, Republicans have said they are closed to new tax revenue; Mr. Obama is seeking as much as $600 billion more.
The Friday meeting represents an "opportunity for us to visit with the president about how we can all keep our commitment to reduce Washington spending," Mr. McConnell said in a statement. "With a $16.6 trillion national debt, and a promise to the American people to address it, one thing is perfectly clear: We will cut Washington spending. We can either secure those reductions more intelligently, or we can do it the president's way with across-the board cuts. But one thing Americans simply will not accept is another tax increase to replace spending reductions we already agreed to."
Ms. Pelosi said she wants to see "a balanced, bipartisan solution to avoid the unemployment and economic uncertainty caused by the indiscriminate cuts set to take effect."
As part of Mr. Obama's efforts to put pressure on congressional Republicans, Organizing for Action, a nonprofit established to promote his second-term agenda, contacted people on its mailing list with a warning: "Prepare yourself for job layoffs, reduced access to early education, slower emergency response, slashed health care, and more people living on the street." The automatic spending cuts "will hurt everyday Americans -- including you," the group said in a statement e-mailed to supporters.
Head Start one of many education programs facing cuts. Page A-6
Advocate urges nonprofits to take action. Page B-1nation
Post-Gazette staff writer Tracie Mauriello contributed.