With hours ticking on the sequester timebomb and the Obama administration warning that airports will close and food will not be inspected for poisons, lawmakers on Capitol Hill made a last-ditch attempt Thursday to avert automatic spending cuts. The result? Zilch.
Republican Sens. Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma introduced legislation earlier this week that would have given the president discretion over how the mandated budget cuts would go into effect.
But the White House threatened to veto the bill and some Republicans feared it would have given Obama the power of the purse. Under the law, Obama would have had until mid-March to select a more specific collection of cuts to replace the $85 billion in cuts mandated by the sequester. And Republicans worried Obama would seek retribution in strongly-GOP congressional districts.
"I say to my Republican friends, if you want to just give the president flexibility as to how to enact these cuts in defense spending, then why don't we just go home and give him the money?," Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain said on CNN.
Other Republicans, however, saw the bill as a sound way to soften the blow of the cuts, thinking their colleagues were overreacting a bit.
"People [are]worrying about the president's going to do something in red states. Look, this is our nation. We have a huge spending problem," says Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker. "I''d like to give [the president] the flexibility. I don't think he wants it."
Democrats opposed the GOP bill because it would make their party politically liable for cuts and force the president to make the tough choices on how to slash the federal budget.
Senate Democrats put forth their own bill, which would have replaced the sequester for one year through a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases. But that failed Thursday too. The Senate bill sought to cut certain agricultural subsidies, set a minimum tax on millionaires and closed targeted tax loopholes.
For now it looks like the sequestration train is unstoppable. Lawmakers will now turn their efforts to the next fiscal crisis —a looming government shutdown on March 27 when the country runs out of money to keep the lights on.