There's Still A Chance To Avoid Sequester Cuts

President Obama meets with bipartisan congressional leaders at the White House Friday. Deep budget cuts could start taking effect Friday unless there's a last minute agreement.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

March is here, which means the sequester countdown clock is at zero. Deep budget cuts could start taking effect today, unless there's a last-minute agreement, and that seems less likely than ever.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Congressional leaders meet the president today, just as they have at one manufactured deadline after another, with more deadlines still to come. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on the political version of Groundhog Day.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: We've watched this movie before. Just a couple of months ago, the country was teetering on the brink of the fiscal cliff, and four congressional leaders came to the White House for one last-ditch shot at a bargain: Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell from the Senate, John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi from the House - the same foursome that's coming to the White House today. Last time, the 11th hour diplomacy actually worked, and on January 1st, the president announced the deal, along with a sort of New Year's resolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The one thing that I think hopefully in the New Year we'll focus on is seeing if we can put a package like this together with a little less drama, a little less brinkmanship, not scare the heck out of folks quite as much.

SHAPIRO: So much for that. Another day of reckoning is here, with another last-gasp White House meeting. This time, expectations are even lower than before. McConnell put out a statement this morning, saying, quote, "There will be no last-minute, backroom deal."

JON COWAN: There's been almost no dialogue, either between the parties or between the White House and Congress. It's all been through the media, in public and the president going around the country.

SHAPIRO: Jon Cowan is president of the centrist Democratic group Third Way.

COWAN: So there really isn't any basis for believing they're going to get a deal, because they're at the beginning of negotiations, not even in the middle, much less near the end.

SHAPIRO: The closest the president came to negotiating with the leaders was a phone call a week ago. Terry Holt is a Republican strategist who used to work for House Speaker Boehner.

TERRY HOLT: I wonder whether the two sides really have any trust for each other at this point. And I also think that the American people are suffering from sort of cliff fatigue. And this kind of show is seen as more theater than substance.

SHAPIRO: But the theater continued in the Senate yesterday, with both sides offering bills that they knew could not pass to replace the sequester. By now, the parties' differences are almost cliche. Democrats offered a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts. Republicans offered cuts only. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island is a Democrat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: Don't tell me that a billionaire hedge fund manager can't pay a higher tax rate than a brick mason.

SHAPIRO: Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama is a Republican.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS: We stand ready to try to spread those cuts out in a way that's smarter and does - and is less painful on any one organization, because everybody should tighten their belt to help get this country on a sound path. We are really willing to do that.

SHAPIRO: The law requires the president to issue the sequestration order by 11:59 tonight. At the same time, the budget office will send Congress a report describing the cuts in each account. Then it's up to government offices to implement them. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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