WASHINGTON -- Signaling an attempt to break an impasse, President Barack Obama on Thursday placed calls to House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell about the looming spending cuts set to kick in on March 1. Neither side reported progress, however, and aides taunted each other with Twitter messages.
The outreach was Obama's first in weeks to top Republicans in Congress. They came as both parties remained in a stalemate over how to avoid automatic, across-the-board cuts that would trim $85 billion from most government accounts.
White House spokesman Jay Carney revealed the calls Thursday, describing them as "good conversations." But neither he nor top Republican aides offered details about the discussions, the kind of restraint that has in the past indicated a move toward genuine negotiations. Obama also spoke to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Thursday, though aides said both men speak frequently.
Obama sounded cautious about chances for a breakthrough during a Thursday interview with television and radio talk show host Al Sharpton.
"At this point, we continue to reach out to the Republicans and say this is not going to be good for the economy, and it's not going to be good for ordinary people," Obama said. "But I don't know if they're going to move, and that's what we're going to have to try to keep pushing over the next seven, eight days."
Later Thursday, Carney and Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck engaged in an exchange on Twitter debating Obama's insistence on replacing the cuts with a combination of tax increases and targeted spending reductions, an approach that Obama says would strike a balance between revenue and cuts. Republicans have refused to increase taxes, noting that Congress already agreed to a previous Obama request to raise the upper tax rate for top income earners.
"Oh, Jay. Was it balanced when the president got $600B in revenue with no spending cuts just last month?" Buck tweeted at one point.
"Oh, Brendan, back in real world, POTUS has signed into law (more than) $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction, 2/3 of it spending cuts," Carney replied, using the acronym for president of the United States.
Both aides' assertions are correct and not mutually exclusive. The $600 billion in 10-year revenue came from a rate hike on top earners agreed to in a New Year's deal that delayed the automatic cuts until March 1. Before that, Congress and Obama in 2011 enacted $1.4 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years. The remaining $500 billion in deficit reduction is the result of lower interest payments on the national debt.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said Thursday's call was Obama's first to McConnell since New Year's Eve, when the White House and Congress were negotiating to avoid a combination of across-the-board tax increases and spending cuts that came to be known as the fiscal cliff.
Since then, Obama had sidestepped Congress, mounting a public campaign to cast the March 1 cuts as damaging to national security and to other government services. Obama has not backed away from that strategy, scheduling a trip Tuesday to Newport News, Va., a region of the state with a heavy military presence.
The imminent spending cuts are required under a budget plan Obama and Congress agreed to in 2011 that was designed to force lawmakers and the president to find less onerous ways to reduce deficits and stabilize the national debt. Both sides failed to find an alternative, however, leaving the cuts to kick in this year.
Despite Obama's call to the two Republican leaders, in public statements he continued to anger Republicans by needling them as protectors of the rich.
"My sense is that their basic view is that nothing is important enough to raise taxes on wealthy individuals or corporations and they would prefer to see these kinds of cuts that could slow down our recovery over closing tax loopholes," Obama told Sharpton on Thursday. "That's the thing that binds their party together at this point."
Buck, Boehner's aide, said in a statement: "The American people expect more of their president than petty cheap shots. We can have serious disagreements about how best to create jobs without asserting nefarious motives."
Stewart, McConnell's aide, added: "Three months after the November election, President Obama still prefers campaign events to common sense, bipartisan action."