The White House will meet congressional leaders on Friday, the day that $85bn in automatic spending cuts known as sequestration takes effect.
After weeks of campaign-style rallies in which President Barack Obama has sought to put pressure on Republicans to give in to demands to postpone the spending cuts and replace them with a mix of cuts and tax increases, it will be the first face-to-face meeting between the president and leaders in Congress to discuss the matter.
A spokesman for John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House, said: “At this point, the Obama administration isn’t even pretending to try to stop the sequester.”
Like many of the big budget battles in recent years, the stand-off over sequestration has pitted the White House, which is seeking to delay or change the spending cuts, against congressional Republicans.
While Republicans have also argued that the cuts – $600bn of which will come from the Pentagon’s budget over the next 10 years – are crude and ought to be replaced with other pullbacks in spending, the majority of the party supports immediate spending reductions
Most analysts agree that once sequestration is rolled out, and congressional districts begin to feel the pain of government workers being furloughed and services curtailed, that pressure will build on lawmakers to take action.
“In the absence of a real crisis, these folks are incapable of putting together any kind of deal. I think they are going to start feeling pressure in a week or two,” said Charlie Cook, the political analyst.
Like in other crisis over the debt ceiling, both sides seem convinced that the other will bear the brunt of the public’s scorn once sequestration occurs – though it if far from clear right now how the public will react or whether this will sway Washington leaders.
While Mr Obama and congressional Democrats seem confident that Republicans will be forced to abandon their position and agree to some tax increases, Mr Cook said Mr Obama would also likely to be forced to put some concessions on the table to reform expensive government entitlement programmes, which are the key drivers of the US deficit.
The White House on Wednesday said Mr Obama had invited the four congressional leaders – Mr Boehner and Mitch McConnell, the Republican leaders, and Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, the Democrats – to have a “constructive discussion about doing something to prevent sequestration” from hitting important education and other programmes.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, reiterated that Mr Obama had offered to cut spending by changing the inflation calculation for certain benefits – known as chained CPI – as part of a compromise. Many liberal Democrats staunchly oppose this proposal.
“What we haven’t seen when we hear Republican leaders adamantly refuse to consider revenue as part of deficit reduction is anything like that same spirit of compromise or seriousness of purpose that I think you’ve seen demonstrated by the president and Democratic leaders,” said Mr Carney.
There were other signs of the impending sequestration in Washington after Mr Boehner announced that he would be suspending the use of military aircraft for official travel by lawmakers, in addition to other spending cuts.
A Republican staffer said there would be no exceptions, including for planned trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. Lawmakers would have to fly “commercial”.