Automatic U.S. budget cuts taking effect amid gridlock

Automatic U.S. government spending cuts are set to kick in amid continued political gridlock as last-ditch alternatives to the so-called “sequester” were defeated in the Senate.

“Can we not at least come to some agreement to prevent this,” asked Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, echoing fellow U.S. lawmakers who seemed stunned by their own inability to act in response to the imminent sequester.

The answer for now: no.

Democrats proposed replacing the sequester’s cuts-only approach with a mix of targeted spending reductions and higher tax revenues, but Republicans objected.

“Look, the American people simply will not accept replacing spending cuts agreed to by both parties with tax hikes,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.

Republicans proposed maintaining the total amount of spending cuts — $85 billion this year — but giving President Obama flexibility in implementing them, prompting objections from Democrats.

“Why would they — the Republicans — part of the legislative branch of government, cede more power to the White House?” asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. “Republicans should give Congress true flexibility. Flexibility to cut wasteful subsidies, flexibility to close unnecessary tax loopholes, and flexibility to ask the richest of the rich to contribute a little bit more.”

While blocking alternatives to the sequester, senators also took turns blasting it.

“God, if we cannot do better than that, all of us should be fired,” said Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, decrying cuts to the military budget. “Fire the politicians, keep the soldiers.”

Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, denounced the idea of implementing austerity while the economy remains weak.

“Cutting spending at this moment in time means cutting jobs at this moment in time, which means fewer people paying income taxes and more people drawing government benefits,” he said. “That is not a recipe for economic expansion.”

Next up is a meeting today between President Barack Obama and congressional leaders. White House spokesman Jay Carney is making no prediction of a breakthrough.

“There are no preconditions to a meeting like this,” Carney said. “This is a meeting with the president … any topic is up for discussion if one member of the group decides he or she wants to broach it.”

Obama, who has implored Congress to act, has repeatedly warned the sequester will hobble critical government functions, causing harm, pain and inconveniences. McConnell, who will be at the White House meeting, derided the president’s warnings.

“Instead of directing his secretaries to trim waste in their departments, he is going after first responders, teachers, and almost any other sympathetic constituency you can think of … all to force Americans to accept higher taxes,” McConnell said. “And he will claim his hands are tied, and somehow it will be everybody’s fault but his. Nonsense.”

Once the sequester takes hold, the American people will likely weigh in on its effects — quite possibly assigning blame. Leaders on both sides of the aisle hope blame falls on the other party.

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