President Barack Obama summoned congressional leaders Friday but the talks were more for the sake of appearances rather than a deadline day bid to avert a damaging $85 billion in arbitrary budget cuts.
Obama was bound by law to initiate the automatic, indiscriminate cuts, which could wound the already fragile economy, cost a million jobs and harm military readiness, by 11.59 pm in the absence of an deficit cutting agreement.
The hit to military and domestic spending, known as the sequester, was never supposed to happen, but was rather a device seen as so punishing that rival lawmakers would be forced to find a better compromise to cut the deficit.
But such is the dysfunction in gridlocked Washington that neither side tried very hard to get a deal, with Obama calling for tax revenue hikes on the wealthy and corporations -- a demand Republicans flatly refused.
The drama instead evolved into the latest philosophical standoff over the size, role and financing of government between Obama, who won re-election vowing to protect the middle class and fiscally conservative Republicans.
Obama welcomed his chief foes, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell to the Oval Office along with Democratic Senate chief Harry Read and top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi.
But McConnell signaled there would be no flexibility from Republicans on the core issue -- whether to close tax loopholes in a "balanced" deal to cut the deficit that Obama has proposed.
"There will be no last-minute, back-room deal and absolutely no agreement to increase taxes," McConnell said in a statement.
Obama, in effect extending the campaign that won him re-election in November, has mounted a fierce public relations offensive designed to maximize his leverage by pouring blame on Republicans for the cuts.
"Instead of closing a single tax loophole that benefits the well-off and well-connected, (Republicans) chose to cut vital services for children, seniors, our men and women in uniform and their families," Obama said Thursday.
"They voted to let the entire burden of deficit reduction fall squarely on the middle class."
Republicans accuse Obama of inflating the impact of the sequester and of using scare tactics and believe he has painted himself into a political corner.
"They are predicting a disaster that will not occur," senior Republican Senator John Cornyn said.
The White House on Thursday admitted it would take time for the full impact of the sequester to be felt, as government workers get furlough notices and services, like education for special needs kids, are put at risk.
But it said the results of the cuts would nevertheless be emphatic.
"You cannot responsibly cut $85 billion out of the budget in seven months without having ... dramatic effects on the defense industry and civilian workers, on our national security readiness, on teachers," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Although the cuts trim significant amounts from domestic and defense spending, they do not touch entitlements -- social programs like Medicare health care for the elderly and pension schemes.
Many budget experts believe that only cuts to those programs will be able to restore the prospect of long-term fiscal stability.
Going through the motions Thursday, senators failed to advance two bills -- one Democratic, one Republican -- to avert the sequester.
The best hope for a deal now lies in the parallel negotiations on a new bill to cover funding for government operations for fiscal year 2013 that must be completed by the end of March.
The White House warns that the indiscriminate cuts are written into law in such a way that their impact cannot be alleviated.
It says 800,000 civilian employees of the Defense Department will go on a mandatory furlough one day a week and the navy will trim voyages. The deployment of a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf has been canceled.
About 70,000 children less than five years old will be cut from the Head Start preschool program, resulting in the elimination of 14,000 teaching positions. Services for special needs kids will also take a hit.
Authorities warn that average wait times for passengers at US immigration will increase by 30-50 percent and may exceed four hours during peak times.
The Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington estimates that one million jobs could be lost, and the Congressional Budget Office predicts growth could slip 0.7 percent.