WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama will meet Friday with the top leaders in the House and Senate to discuss what to do about automatic cuts to the federal budget.
The meeting, revealed Tuesday by White House and congressional aides, is set to take place hours after the $85 billion in across-the-board cuts will have officially kicked in. This suggests both sides are operating under an assumption that a deal to avert the cuts ahead of the deadline is now out of the question.
The top congressional Republicans, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the top Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, will attend the White House meeting. McConnell said the meeting will focus on ways to reduce government spending, but indicated he's not backing down on his opposition to any new revenues.
"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," the Kentucky Republican said.
The meeting reflects a move to jumpstart negotiations after weeks of inaction on cuts that both parties have said could inflict major damage to government programs, the military and the economy at large. No serious talks to avert the cuts have been under way, and Friday's meeting will be the first face-to-face discussion between Obama and Republican leaders this year.
The White House has warned that the $85 billion in cuts could affect everything from commercial flights to classrooms and meat inspections. The cuts would slash domestic and defense spending, leading to forced unpaid days off for hundreds of thousands of government workers.
The impact won't be immediate. Federal workers would be notified next week that they will have to take up to a day every week off without pay, but the furloughs won't start for a month due to notification requirements. That will give negotiators some breathing room to keep working on a deal.
McConnell and other top Republicans have been lining up behind a plan that wouldn't replace the cuts but would give Obama's agency heads greater leeway in deciding how to distribute them. The idea is that money could be transferred from lower-priority accounts to others, for instance, which bankroll air traffic control and meat inspection. But Obama and some Republicans have said they don't support that approach.
Senate Democrats have prepared a measure that would forestall the automatic cuts through the end of the year, replacing them with longer-term cuts to the Pentagon and cash payments to farmers, and by installing a minimum 30 percent tax rate on income exceeding $1 million. That plan is virtually certain to be toppled by a GOP-led filibuster vote later this week.
In the House, where Republicans in the last Congress passed legislation to replace the cuts, Boehner has said it's now up to Obama and the Senate to figure a way out. The Senate never took up the House-passed bill.