As sequester takes effect, politicians prepare for Mar. 27 government shutdown showdown

Friday, March 1, 2013 - 9:00pm

In the final hours before $85 billion in widely disliked spending cuts began to take effect Friday, top political leaders did virtually nothing to defuse Washington's latest self-imposed fiscal crisis. Democrats blamed Republicans, Republicans blamed Democrats, and both sides prepared for the next showdown -- a possible government shutdown on March 27.

Here are the highlights of Friday's partisan skirmish:

Last minute White House meeting achieves nothing

President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi huddled behind closed doors for less than an hour Friday morning. As expected, the meeting didn't accomplish anything.

The gathering was "subdued" a GOP congressional aide told CNN.

Democrats insisted once again that the cuts could be avoided if only Republicans would compromise and agree to higher taxes on the rich.

"None of this is necessary," Obama told reporters after the meeting. "It's happening because (of) a choice that Republicans in Congress have made. They've allowed these cuts to happen because they refuse to budge on closing a single wasteful (tax) loophole to help reduce the deficit."

The country "will get through this," he insisted. But "it's just dumb."

Republicans once again ruled out new taxes, and said they had already done their part.

"The (GOP-controlled) House shouldn't have to pass a third bill before the (Democratic-controlled) Senate does anything," said Boehner, referring to Republican-drafted legislation that died in the last Congress. "The House has laid out a plan to avoid the (current cuts). ... This discussion about revenue, in my view, is over. It's about taking on the spending problem here in Washington."

The current pending budget cuts are the result of an ongoing partisan impasse whose origins stem from an August 2011 agreement to increase the debt ceiling.

Obama: I don't have horns and I'm not a Jedi

"I recognize that it is very hard for Republican leaders to be perceived as making concessions to me," Obama told reporters. "Sometimes I reflect -- is there something else I can do to make these guys ... not to paint horns on my head?"

The president bemoaned his inability to force GOP leaders to cut a deal.

"I know that this has been some of the conventional wisdom that's been floating around Washington ... that I should, somehow, you know, do a Jedi mind meld with these folks and convince them to do what's right," Obama said. "If there was a secret way to (convince them), I would have tried it. I would have done it. What I can do is, I can make the best possible argument. And I can offer concessions, and I can offer compromise."

Boehner: House will try to avoid a government shutdown

The next big date on the fiscal calendar is March 27, the day Washington's spending authority expires for the rest of the current fiscal year. Congress has to pass a bill extending federal spending authority or the government will shut down.

"The House is going to move a (legislation) next week to fund the government past March 27," Boehner said. "I hope the Senate will follow suit. ... I'm hopeful that we won't have to deal with the threat of a government shutdown while we're dealing with the (spending cuts) at the same time."

And speaking of that shutdown ...

As March 27 approaches, lawmakers will continue to fight over the $85 billion in spending cuts. Should a new government funding bill include the current cuts? Should it substitute another $85 billion in cuts? Should greater flexibility be provided to the Pentagon or other departments as they implement the cuts? With less than a month to go before the shutdown deadline, these questions are already dividing legislators and could derail coming shutdown talks.

Democrats have so far largely resisted the notion of greater flexibility in the implementation of the cuts. On Thursday, they rejected a Senate Republican bill that would have given Obama more flexibility in deciding which programs to slice.

Among other things, Democrats worry that would let the GOP off the hook while placing responsibility for the cuts clearly on the president's shoulders. Critics in both parties consider the idea an abdication of Congress's power of the purse.

"Flexibility is not a substitute for money," Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, told CNN's Ted Barrett on Friday. Flexibility "would be like being on the Titanic. We've hit the iceberg, and flexibility says what deck to you want to be on as you sink? Do you want to be near the kitchen? Do you want to be near the band?"

"What we want is a solution with money," Mikulski. "Not a sham solution with the illusion of a management approach."

McConnell: No more taxes or back-room deals

"Over the coming weeks, we'll have the opportunity to ensure funding is at the level we promised while working on solutions for making spending reductions more intelligently than the president's across-the-board cuts," the Senate minority leader said in a written statement Friday afternoon.

"But I want to make clear that any solutions will be done through the regular order, with input from both sides of the aisle in public debate. I will not be part of any back-room deal and I will absolutely not agree to increase taxes," he added.

Pelosi: House GOP fears "marketplace of ideas"

House Democrats "have a proposal that would have been better" than the current cuts, Pelosi told reporters on Capitol Hill. The proposal "has a revenue piece," she noted, but Democrats "haven't been able to bring it up. We've ... tried three times in the last two months."

"The Republicans, I don't know what they're afraid of," the California Democrat said. "This is the marketplace of ideas. Are they afraid that some of their members might vote for it?"

Federal employees brace for furloughs

Several FBI employees told CNN they received letters Thursday warning of expected cuts and furloughs due to the imminent cuts. Prospective furlough notices also went out to 115,000 Justice Department employees, according to a senior official at the department.

Finally, if you're planning to visit the Capitol soon ...

Prepare for longer lines. The following message went out Friday from Congress's Office of Sergeant at Arms:

The imminent spending cuts "will require modifying points of access for members, congressional staff and guests to the U.S. Capitol Complex.

"At this time it is anticipated that the U.S. Capitol Police will be required to close some entrance doors and exterior checkpoints, and either suspend or modify the hours of operation for some of the U.S. Capitol Complex posts located inside and outside of the (Capitol Visitor Center) and office buildings. These changes will most likely take place within the next two weeks, and the congressional community will be notified in a timely manner before implementation." 

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