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By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON, Feb 21 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama expressed doubt on Thursday that a deal can be struck with Republican lawmakers by a March 1 deadline to head off the start of $85 billion in spending cuts.
His comments, made in an interview with radio talk show host Al Sharpton, suggested the White House was preparing for the possibility the March 1 deadline will pass with no deal.
That would set off a chain reaction of automatic spending cuts that if left unchecked over the next few months could lead to thousands of job furloughs.
Republican lawmakers who control the House of Representatives are solidly against Obama's proposal to raise money for deficit reduction by eliminating tax loopholes. Obama is insistent that any deal to avert the spending cuts must include ways to raise revenues so deep cuts in social programs are avoided.
"At this point, we continue to reach out to Republicans and say this is not going to be good for the economy, it's not going to be good for ordinary people. But I don't know if they're going to move and that's what we're going to have to keep pushing over the next seven, eight days," Obama told Sharpton.
Obama spoke by phone on Thursday to House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Washington, and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
"Whether or not we can move Republicans at this point to do the right thing is what we're still trying to gauge," he told Sharpton.
If no deal is reached by March 1, and it seems unlikely one will be, attention will immediately turn to a March 27 deadline when a stopgap funding bill expires and a new measure would need to be negotiated to keep the government running.
The longer the dispute drags on, the more likely the other legislative priorities of the president, like gun control and an immigration overhaul, will be delayed.
"I'd like to get as much stuff done as quickly as possible," Obama said on Wednesday in an interview with KGO-TV, a local affiliate of ABC News in San Francisco.
"Even though I'm just starting my second term, I know that ... once we get through this year, then people start looking at the midterms (elections). And after that, they start thinking about presidential elections."