The GOP bill was rejected 62 to 38, with nine Republicans who feared it would afford Obama too much power voting no.
With that, the Senate closed up shop for the week. The House — which made no recent attempt to stop the sequester after adopting two proposals last year to shift the spending cuts from the military to domestic programs — completed its work hours earlier.
So lawmakers left Washington resigned to the idea of letting the cuts take effect sometime before midnight Friday, when the law requires Obama to sign a formal order telling agencies how much to cut from each account.
“Today, Republicans in the Senate faced a choice about how to grow our economy and reduce our deficit. And instead of closing a single tax loophole that benefits the well-off and well-connected, they chose to cut vital services for children, seniors, our men and women in uniform and their families,” Obama said in a statement.
“I believe we should do better,” Obama said, adding that Friday’s meeting at the White House offers an opportunity to chart “a path forward.”
The path seems uncommonly murky, however. Last week, in meetings with liberal activists, administration officials suggested that they hoped to persuade Republicans to cancel the sequester as part of negotiations over the funding bill needed to keep the government open past March 27.
That now appears unlikely. House Republicans announced plans to vote next week on a measure that would keep government funding at sequester levels for the rest of the fiscal year while providing new flexibility to manage the cuts at the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Obama and Senate Democrats are angling for adjustments to that bill that would make the sequester easier for domestic agencies, as well. But neither the White House nor Senate leaders is threatening to block the House proposal.
“There’s nobody talking about using the [government funding bill] to try to turn off the sequester,” said a senior Democratic aide in the Senate.
After that comes the congressional budget process. House Republicans have said they will keep the sequester savings, which total $1.2 trillion over the next decade. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said Thursday that she plans to replace the sequester in her 10-year framework, in part with higher taxes on the wealthy.
Ultimately, the president argues that Washington will have to return to the “grand bargain” that would require Republicans to raise taxes and Democrats to cut the health and retirement programs that account for the biggest portion of government spending. The sequester targets primarily the agency spending that Congress doles out each year and doesn’t touch hot-button “entitlement” programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
But the grand bargain has eluded Obama for more than two years; talks with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) never bore fruit. And even sympathetic Republicans say it’s difficult to see a forum for reopening negotiations.
“How does this movie end? I don’t know,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a defense hawk and a champion of the grand bargain who met with Obama this week. “Maybe [lawmakers] will come together after seeing the effects of the sequester on the economy and the Department of Defense.”
Not very hopefully, he added: “Hope springs eternal.”
Paul Kane and David Nakamura contributed to this report.
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