Obama to meet with congressional leaders on ways to avoid sequester

In a meeting planned for Friday, President Obama will push Republican congressional leaders to accept higher tax revenue in order to avoid deep spending cuts set to take effect on the same day.

The Republicans are expected to reply that they already compromised at the beginning of the year, when they agreed to more than $600 billion in new taxes, according to officials in both camps.

The first formal meeting between Obama and congressional leaders over the spending cuts, known as the sequester, will come after weeks of finger-pointing by both sides. An administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the president will push for specific solutions from Republicans, asking them to name one tax break they are willing to end to stop the spending cuts.

“What we haven’t seen, when we hear Republican leaders adamantly refuse to consider revenue as part of deficit reduction, is anything like that same spirit of compromise or seriousness of purpose that I think you’ve seen demonstrated by the president,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday. “We remain hopeful that at some point, hopefully soon, that Republicans will understand the need to compromise here.”

Republicans, though, cast doubt on whether the meeting will be useful.

You’ve heard politicians mention the word “sequester” a lot lately. The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe explains what the term means and why it matters. (The Washington Post)

“The message my constituents keep sending is simply this: Replacing spending cuts that both parties have already agreed to, and which the president has already signed into law, with tax hikes is simply unacceptable,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

“We’re still ready to work with them to get something responsible done,” he added. “But we can’t do it alone.”

The reductions in defense and domestic spending are expected to begin Friday, the same day Obama will meet at the White House with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), McConnell, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The cuts would trim $85 billion from federal spending — including congressional office budgets — for the rest of fiscal year 2013.

The Senate plans to vote Thursday afternoon on replacing the sequester in part with tax increases on millionaires. The Democratic bill is expected to fail, as is a GOP alternative that would give the White House more flexibility to decide where the cuts would fall.

House Republicans were looking past the Friday meeting to the next front in the budget wars. They agreed to put a bill on the floor as soon as next week that would prevent a government shutdown on March 27; that measure to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year would continue the sequester while providing new protections from the cuts to the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs, positions that are opposed in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

As the sequester clock ticked down, anxiety over the potential consequences continued to rise Wednesday.

As part of belt-tightening prompted by the cuts, Boehner is curbing congressional trips abroad. He told a meeting of his Republican Conference on Wednesday that only delegations headed to review the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq would be allowed to continue once the cuts take affect, according to Republicans in the room.

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration warned Wednesday of major flight delays and the closure of hundreds of air-traffic-control towers at smaller airports across the country.

“Flights to major cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco could experience delays, in some instances up to 90 minutes during peak hours, because we’ll have fewer controllers on staff,” FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta said in a speech. “And delays in these major airports could ripple across the country.”

Huerta said most of the agency’s 47,000 employees would likely be furloughed one day every other week until the fiscal year ends in September. The FAA could be forced to close many of the 230 air-traffic-control towers at airports that are less busy, such as those in Boca Raton, Fla., and Joplin, Mo.

Last year, the House passed two bills that would have stopped the sequester and replaced some of the spending cuts with others. But the White House said the magnitude of the cuts was unacceptable and would imperil critical government programs. Instead, it has pushed for an alternative that includes spending cuts and new tax revenue, achieved by scaling back tax breaks that benefit the wealthy and certain industries.

At the beginning of the year, the two sides agreed to a deal that raised taxes on the wealthy, mainly by allowing the top rate to return to what it was during the Clinton administration. Since then, Republicans have said they are closed to new tax revenue; Obama is seeking up to $600 billion more.

The Friday meeting represents an “opportunity for us to visit with the president about how we can all keep our commitment to reduce Washington spending,” McConnell said in a statement. “With a $16.6 trillion national debt, and a promise to the American people to address it, one thing is perfectly clear: we will cut Washington spending. 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.”

Pelosi said that she wants to see “a balanced, bipartisan solution to avoid the unemployment and economic uncertainty caused by the indiscriminate cuts set to take effect.”

As part of Obama’s efforts to put pressure on congressional Republicans, Organizing for Action, a nonprofit established to promote his second-term agenda, contacted people on its mailing list with a warning: “Prepare yourself for job layoffs, reduced access to early education, slower emergency response, slashed health care, and more people living on the street.”

The automatic spending cuts “will hurt everyday Americans — including you,” the group said in a statement e-mailed to supporters.

William Branigin, Paul Kane, Lori Aratani, Ed O’Keefe, Rosalind S. Helderman and Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

Zachary A. Goldfarb is a staff writer covering the White House, focusing on President Obama’s economic, financial and fiscal policy.
Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He anchors Post Nation, a destination for breaking news, developing stories and quick analysis of events around the country.
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