Amid US budget battle, another likely missed deadline

Leaders of a divided Congress acknowledged their failure to avert across-the-board spending cuts set to begin Friday, with lawmakers and the White House trading blame for the doomsday scenario that may lie ahead.

The only related actions of substance Thursday appeared to be votes on competing Senate bills, one sponsored by Democrats and the other by Republicans, to replace the indiscriminate budget austerity, which both sides wanted to avoid when it was baked into law in 2011, with targeted spending cuts and revenues.

President Barack Obama will make a final plea to bickering congressional leaders at a White House meeting on Friday, the last day before the severe cuts known as the sequester begin to kick in.

But many lawmakers from both sides have already resigned themselves to the realization that a deadline-beating budget deal to head off the damaging package of indiscriminate cuts totaling $85 billion this year is just not happening, and that a solution could arise from March negotiations over funding government operations for fiscal year 2013.

"We've laid our cards on the table," House Speaker John Boehner said in explaining why his chamber, which passed two sequester-replacement bills last year, would take no further action until the Senate passed a bill.

Some Republicans have begun to tone down the histrionics over the effects of the sequester, saying the cuts should be manageable -- even as the International Monetary Fund warned Thursday that the sequester will slow growth in the United States and have "an impact on global growth" as well.

But John Cornyn, the number two Republican in the Senate, said Thursday that Obama and his Democrats have been overstating their "apocalyptic predictions" of hundreds of thousands of job losses, a slash in economic growth, and harsh cuts to social services and national security.

"I would suggest... put down the Beltway Kool-Aid, because they are predicting a disaster that will not occur."

Some Republicans in the House agreed. "It is going to happen. It is 2.4 percent of the budget, and it is not the end of the world," Republican Representative Jim Jordan said in US News & World Report.

"We want the savings. We want to bank those savings, and we want to move on."

Democrats have put forward what they are touting as a "balanced plan" that raises new tax revenue to help replace the $85 billion in cuts.

It also cuts several billion dollars in what Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid called "wasteful subsidies to farmers," longstanding and controversial payments that some lawmakers first sought to scrap in the 1980s.

Republicans laid out a competing version that maintains the full financial effect of sequester, without raising new revenue, but gives the president broader "flexibility" to map out where the cuts would hit.

White House spokesman Jay Carney called the Republican proposal "the worst of all worlds."

"It explicitly protects pork-barrel projects and every single tax loophole that benefits the wealthy, but puts on the table cuts to things like Medicare and education, forcing middle-class families to bear the burden while asking nothing from the wealthiest Americans."

And Reid complained that such a plan would force Obama into deciding which programs stay and which get the axe.

But Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said that is precisely the leadership Obama needs to show in a time of crisis.

"It's your job to make the tough decisions," McConnell said of the president.

Democrats are trying to force Republicans into accepting more revenues through closing what Reid calls "wasteful tax loopholes" that favor millionaires.

But conservatives appeared to be standing firm, saying Obama got his $600 billion in tax revenues for the coming decade in the last fiscal negotiations in late December.

"Given those facts, the revenue issue is now closed," Boehner insisted.

Neither plan is likely to receive the necessary votes Thursday to move the legislation forward.

House Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi called the delay "mindless," slamming the "anti-government ideologues" of the far right who were cheering for sequester.

Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer blamed Boehner for running out the clock until sequester hits, and he sounded resigned to the sequester sliding into effect after Friday.

"These votes (in the Senate) will not be the last word on the issue. The debate's only beginning," he said.

"In the coming weeks... we'll consider a budget that will keep these issues front and center."

Republicans in the House had similar intentions. They were coalescing around a plan that would see the sequester absorbed into negotiations on legislation that funds the government.

House Appropriations committee chairman Harold Rogers said there was broad support for the plan, which would pare down the $1.043 trillion discretionary spending budget for 2013 down to $974 billion, the difference being the amount of sequester cuts set to affect such spending.