WASHINGTON — Signaling an attempt to break an impasse, President Barack Obama on Thursday placed calls to House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell about the looming spending cuts set to kick in on March 1.
The outreach was Obama's first in weeks to top Republicans in Congress. They came as both parties remained in a stalemate over how to avoid across-the-board automatic cuts that would trim $85 billion from most government accounts.
White House spokesman Jay Carney revealed the calls Thursday, describing them as “good conversations.” But neither he nor top Republican aides offered details about the discussions, the kind of restraint that has in the past indicated a move toward genuine negotiations.
Obama sounded cautious about chances for a breakthrough during a Thursday interview with television and radio talk show host Al Sharpton.
“At this point, we continue to reach out to the Republicans and say this is not going to be good for the economy, and it's not going to be good for ordinary people,” Obama said. “But I don't know if they're going to move, and that's what we're going to have to try to keep pushing over the next seven, eight days.”
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart says Thursday's call was Obama's first to McConnell since New Year's Eve, when the White House and Congress were negotiating to avoid a combination of across-the-board tax increases and spending cuts that came to be known as the fiscal cliff.
Since then, Obama had sidestepped Congress, mounting a public campaign to cast the March 1 cuts as damaging to national security and to other government services. Obama has not backed away from that strategy, scheduling a trip Tuesday to Newport News, Va., a region of the state with a heavy military presence.
The imminent spending cuts are required under a budget plan Obama and Congress agreed to in 2011 that was designed to force lawmakers and the president to find less onerous ways to reduce deficits and stabilize the national debt.
Both sides failed to find an alternative, however. And now Obama is demanding that the cuts be replaced with a blend of tax increases and more targeted reductions in government programs. Republicans have refused to increase taxes, noting that Congress already agreed to a previous Obama request to raise the upper tax rate for top income earners.
Carney said the budget cuts would likely be a topic when Obama meets with the nation's governors over the next four days. The president has invited Democratic governors to the White House on Friday. Bipartisan members of the National Governors Association will be in the White House Sunday evening for dinner and Monday for meetings.