U.S. President Barack Obama
Positions hardened on Wednesday between U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican congressional leaders over the budget crisis even as they arranged to hold last-ditch talks to prevent harsh automatic spending cuts beginning this week.
Looking resigned to the $85 billion in "sequestration" cuts starting on Friday, government agencies began reducing costs and spelling out to employees how furloughs will work, reports Reuters.
Expectations were low that a White House meeting on Friday between Obama and congressional leaders, including Republican foes, would produce any deal to avoid the cuts.
Speaking to a business group, Obama said the cuts could shave 0.6 percentage points or more from already anaemic growth and urged executives to pressure Congress into compromising on a broad deficit reduction package.
"Whether that can be done in the next two days - I haven't seen things done in two days in Washington in quite some time," Obama told the Business Council, which is composed of chief executives of major U.S. corporations. "The good news is that the public is beginning to pay attention to this."
Public services across the country - from air traffic control to food safety inspections and education - might be disrupted if the cuts go ahead.
Put into law in 2011 as part of an earlier fiscal crisis, sequestration is unloved by both parties because of the economic pain it will cause, but the politicians cannot agree how to stop it.
A deal in Congress on less drastic spending cuts, perhaps with tax increases too, is needed by Friday to halt the sequestration reductions, which are split between social programs cherished by Democrats and defence spending championed by Republicans.
Obama stuck by his demand that Republicans accept tax increases in the form of eliminating tax loopholes enjoyed mostly by the wealthy as part of a balanced approach to avoiding sequestration.
"There is no alternative in the president's mind to balance," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
Obama wants to end tax breaks for oil and gas companies and the lower "carried interest" tax rate enjoyed by hedge funds.
But Republicans who reluctantly agreed to raise income tax rates on the rich to avert the "fiscal cliff" crisis in December are in no mood for that.