President Obama on Thursday phoned Republican leaders in Congress to discuss the impasse surrounding $85 billion in automatic spending cuts set to hit the government on March 1.
White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to give details of the call, while Republicans picked at Obama for not calling Democrats, a criticism that suggested they saw the calls as a political stunt.
"He placed calls earlier today to Sen. McConnell and Speaker BoehnerJohn BoehnerLast Congress far from ‘do-nothing’ Top aide: Obama worried about impeachment for Syria actions An anti-government ideologue like Mulvaney shouldn't run OMB MORE, had good conversations, but I have no further readout of those calls for you," Carney told reporters at his daily press briefing.
The calls appear aimed at demonstrating Obama is engaged in trying to avert the sequester — which the president has described as a "meat cleaver" approach to budget cutting — and to answer GOP criticisms he hasn't reached out to them on major policy disputes.
A spokesman for Boehner suggested Obama should instead focus his efforts on Senate Democrats, noting that while the House has passed a pair of sequester replacement bills, the upper chamber has passed none.
"If he wants to avert the sequester, shouldn’t the President be focused on the House of Congress that HASN’T acted, and where his own political party holds the majority?" Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in an email.
The Speaker has insisted repeatedly that the House will not act again to replace the automatic cuts until a plan passes the Senate. But the odds of a deal in the Senate are slim, with McConnell saying that he is "not interested in an eleventh-hour negotiation."
“It’s pretty clear to me that the sequester is going to go into effect,” McConnell told reporters last week.
Obama and Democrats want to replace the sequester with a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts, but Republicans say no tax increases should be a part of the package after January's "fiscal cliff" deal, which raised tax rates on annual household income above $450,000.
Senate Democrats are expected to bring a bill to the floor next week that would replace part of the sequester with a minimum 30 percent tax on millionaires, a proposal Republicans have rejected.
The calls to McConnell and Boehner on the sequester follow calls by Obama on Tuesday to several Republican senators — including Sens. John McCainJohn McCainUS democracy is in crisis. Trump voters must help us get past it. The rise of Carlson, and the fall of Van Susteren Booker to vote against Tillerson MORE (Ariz.), Marco RubioMarco RubioTop Dem: Don’t bring Tillerson floor vote if he doesn’t pass committee Booker to vote against Tillerson Rubio wades into Trump-Lewis feud MORE (Fla.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamTrump’s UN pick threads needle on Russia, NATO Haley slams United Nations, echoing Trump Haley to question US funding of UN: report MORE (S.C.) — after they criticized him for not talking to them about immigration reform.
Obama has been criticized by Republicans for not reaching out to them on his agenda.
The president this week has waged a public campaign aimed at setting up the GOP for blame if they are not averted.
On Thursday, Obama said he didn't know if Republicans would be willing to continue negotiating to avoid the across-the-board cuts.
"At this point, we continue to reach out to Republicans and say this is not going to be good for the economy and this is not going to be good for ordinary people, but I don't know if they're going to move," Obama said during an interview on Al Sharpton's radio show. "We're going to have to try to keep pushing over the next seven or eight days."
In the interview with Sharpton, Obama repeated his charge that Republicans valued tax carve-outs for the wealthy over averting the sequester cuts.
"My sense is their basic view is that nothing is important enough to raise taxes on wealthy individuals or corporations, and they would prefer to see these kind of cuts that could slow down our recovery over closing tax loopholes," Obama said. "And that's the thing that binds their party together at this point."
Republicans have disputed that characterization, with Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck saying that Republicans were open to closing loopholes as long as savings were not used to finance new deficit spending.
"Americans know that if they give President Obama more tax revenue, he isn't going to use it to reduce the deficit; he's going to spend it," Buck said in a statement Tuesday.
Obama also argued that he felt like he had the political advantage, pointing to a USA Today poll released Thursday that showed a majority of Americans supported a deficit deal that included both new revenue sources and spending reduction.
"When you look at polling, 75 percent of the American people agree with me, that the way to reduce deficit sensibly is through a combination of spending cuts and tax revenue," Obama said.
"Unfortunately I think Republicans right now are so dug in on this notion of never raising taxes that it becomes difficult for them to see an obvious answer right in front of them."
Republicans have argued that they already agreed to new revenues in the "fiscal cliff" deal last month and that a sequester deal should come only from spending cuts.
The interview with Sharpton was one of three taped Thursday with African-American radio hosts, the latest leg of a media blitz intended to intensify pressure on congressional Republicans.
On Wednesday, Obama taped interviews with eight television stations, and earlier in the week he gave a speech urging a sequester deal at a White House event featuring first-responders facing furloughs or layoffs.
This story was posted at 1:49 p.m. and updated at 3:20 p.m.