Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
WASHINGTON – A combative President Barack Obama blamed Republican lawmakers Friday for failing to stop automatic spending cuts that were to begin kicking in later in the day, arguing he can’t perform a “Jedi mind meld” to get Republicans to agree on a deal.
Republicans said the fault was his, for insisting that increased taxes be part of the resolution.
Obama, pressed on whether he bears some responsibility for the stalemate, expressed frustration and mixed his sci-fi metaphors.
“I’m presenting a fair deal, the fact that they don’t take it means that I should somehow, you know, do a Jedi mind mild with these folks and convince them to do what’s right,” Obama said. The Jedi reference comes from Star Wars, and the mind meld from Star Trek.
The president said much of the impact of the cuts won’t immediately be felt but middle class families will begin to “have their lives disrupted in significant ways.” He said that as long as the cuts stay in effect, Americans will know that the economy could have been better had they been averted.”
“It’s not an apocalypse,” Obama said. “It’s just dumb.”
Obama spoke to reporters a few minutes after meeting at the White House with GOP House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. It yielded no immediate results.
Boehner’s office said he and McConnell told Obama they’re willing to close tax loopholes but only to lower taxes overall, not to replace spending cuts. Obama and congressional leaders have agreed that Congress should pass a bill funding the government beyond the end of March while they keep working on a way to replace the spending cuts, Boehner’s office said.
“The president got his tax hikes on January First,” Boehner said bluntly after the meeting with Obama. “The discussion about revenue in my view is over. It’s about taking on the spending problem here in Washington.”
Boehner said the best way to resolve the cuts now would be through the regular lawmaking process, as opposed to Obama and congressional leaders cutting a deal.
“There will be no last-minute, back-room deal and absolutely no agreement to increase taxes,” McConnell said ahead of the session.
On Thursday, two proposals aimed at blunting the blame over the cuts – one Democratic and the other Republican – were rejected in the Senate.
With the threat of a government shutdown looming, the president said it may take a couple of weeks or couple of months to find a fix for the impasse.
Obama is seeking a big budget deal that would raise taxes and trim billions from expensive and ever-growing entitlement programs. But with the automatic federal spending cuts ready to start taking their toll, the path toward that grand bargain Obama campaigned on last year has significantly narrowed.
His chances are squeezed by anti-tax conservatives, by liberals unwilling to cut into Medicare and Social Security, and by a Republican leadership that has dug in against any new revenue after acceding to Obama’s demands two months ago for a higher tax rate for top income earners.
The meeting Friday was the first the two sides have had this year on the budget battle, and it lasted under an hour. Asked whether he couldn’t get the parties in a room and stay there until they reach a deal, Obama noted that McConnell left early to catch a plane.
“I am not a dictator. I’m the president,” Obama said. “I can’t have Secret Service block the doorway.”
Many conservatives are willing to accept the automatic cuts as the only way to reduce government spending, even though the budget knife cuts into cherished defense programs. Likewise, many liberals are beginning to embrace the cuts as a way to protect revered big benefit programs that have long been identified with the Democratic Party.
Obama criticized that approach. “This is not a win for anybody. This is a loss for the American people,” he said.
The White House is still betting that once the public begins to experience the effects of the $85 billion in across-the-board cuts the pain will be harsh enough to force lawmakers to reconsider and negotiate. But the consequences of the cuts –the so called sequester – will likely be a slow boil.
Indeed, much of the impact won’t be felt for weeks or more than a month; others, like possible teacher layoffs, wouldn’t take place until the new school year in the fall.
Moreover, many programs for low-income Americans are protected from the immediate cuts while the Pentagon – whose budget has long been a target of the left – faces across-the-board cuts of 8 percent and up to 13 percent in some of its accounts.
Polls show that the public is not as engaged in this showdown as it has been in past fiscal confrontations. An NBC-Wall Street Journal survey indicates that Obama has lost some ground with the public in his handling of the economy.
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