Congressional leaders and President Obama said they will meet Friday to discuss $85 billion in automatic spending cuts set to begin hours before that session, a decision seen as a concession that it was highly unlikely the so-called budget sequester would be averted ahead of the deadline.
It will be the first substantial, in-person meeting the president has held all year with congressional leaders, but few are expecting lawmakers to emerge with a deal.
Senate Democrats on Thursday plan to vote for a bill that will stop the sequester with a combination of targeted reductions and new tax hikes on oil companies, corporate jet owners and hedge fund managers.
Republicans are likely to block the bill. The GOP has pledged it will not back any plan that raises taxes, pointing to the increase Democrats won in December on individuals earning more than $400,000. Instead, Republicans are seeking cuts to domestic spending and significant reform of entitlements that drive the nation's massive debt.
"Here we are, with just two days to go until the cuts hit, and the Democrats who control Washington still haven't put forward a serious bipartisan plan," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday in response to the Democratic proposal. "Not the president and not his allies in Congress. They've preferred to keep it alive as a political issue instead. Now, less than 48 hours before the clock runs out, all they've offered is a gimmicky tax hike that's designed to fail."
A stream of Cabinet officials have held press events this week to warn of the dire consequences of sequestration, which they say will include long lines at airports, fewer air traffic controllers, decreased border security and cuts in school programs.
Some Senate Republicans are floating a proposal that would give Obama the power to designate what is cut under the sequester, but many lawmakers oppose the plan because it surrenders congressional authority over spending.
Democrats and Republicans alike say the arbitrary cuts could greatly damage the economy, hike the unemployment rate and weaken national defense, but the two parties didn't bother huddling for very long on the matter when Obama arrived at the Capitol on Wednesday to unveil a statue of civil rights leader Rosa Parks.
According to White House pool reports, a conversation between Obama and the bipartisan leadership lasted only a few minutes, and an aide to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, characterized the conversation as "nothing of consequence."
On the Senate floor Wednesday, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., criticized House Republicans for not taking up their own bill to avert the sequester.
Boehner said the GOP passed two measures late last year and has no plans to take up another bill until the Senate acts.
Reid called Boehner's position "weak sauce."