The budget ax is about to fall, and there's little lawmakers in Washington are doing to stop it.
Despite a parade of dire warnings from the White House, an $85 billion package of deep automatic spending cuts appears poised to take effect at the stroke of midnight on Friday.
The cuts – known in Washington-speak as the sequester – will hit every federal budget, from defense to education, and even the president's own staff.
On Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats and Republicans each staged votes Thursday aimed at substituting the indiscriminate across-the-board cuts with more sensible ones. Democrats also called for including new tax revenue in the mix. Both measures failed.
Lleaders on both sides publicly conceded that the effort was largely for show, with little chance the opposing chamber would embrace the other's plan. They will discuss their differences with President Obama at the White House on Friday.
"It isn't a plan at all, it's a gimmick," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said today of the Democrats' legislation.
"Republicans call the plan flexibility" in how the cuts are made, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "Let's call it what it is. It is a punt."
The budget crisis is the product of a longstanding failure of Congress and the White House to compromise on plans for deficit reduction. The sequester itself, enacted in late 2011, was intended to be so unpalatable as to help force a deal.
Republicans and Democrats, however, remain gridlocked over the issue of taxes.
Obama has mandated that any steps to offset the automatic cuts must include new tax revenue through the elimination of loopholes and deductions. House Speaker John Boehner and the GOP insist the approach should be spending cuts-only, modifying the package to make it more reasonable.
"Do we want to close loopholes? We sure do. But if we are going to do tax reform, it should focus on creating jobs, not funding more government," House Speaker John Boehner said, explaining his opposition to Obama's plan.
Boehner, McConnell, Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi will huddle with Obama at the White House on Friday for the first face-to-face meeting of the group this year.
"There are no preconditions to a meeting like this," White House spokesman Jay Carney said today. "The immediate purpose of the meeting is to discuss the imminent sequester deadline and to avert it."
Even if the leaders reach a deal, there's almost no chance a compromise could be enacted before the deadline. Lawmakers are expected to recess later today for a long weekend in their districts.
What will be the short-term impact of the automatic cuts?
Officials say it will be a gradual, "rolling impact" with limited visible impact across the country in the first few weeks that the cuts are allowed to stand.
Over the long term, however, the Congressional Budget Office and independent economic analysts have warned sequester could lead to economic contraction and possibly a recession.
"This is going to be a big hit on the economy," Obama said Wednesday night.
"It means that you have fewer customers with money in their pockets ready to buy your goods and services. It means that the global economy will be weaker," he said. "And the worst part of it is, it's entirely unnecessary."
Both sides say that if the cuts take effect, the next best chance for a resolution could come next month when the parties need to enact a new federal budget. Government funding runs out on March 27, raising the specter of a federal shutdown if they still can't reach a deal.
"As we anticipate an across-the-board budget cuts across our land, we still expect to see your goodness prevail, O God, " Senate Chaplain Barry Black prayed on the Senate floor this morning, "and save us from ourselves."
- Politics & Government
- Budget, Tax & Economy
- President Obama