Republicans, standing on political ground of their own choosing, responded sharply to the president's fresh demand for higher taxes.
"Spending is the problem, spending must be the focus," said House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, while Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky declared, "There won't be any easy off-ramps on this one. The days of 11th hour negotiations are over."
A crisis atmosphere could yet develop this spring, when hundreds of thousands or even millions of threatened government furloughs begin to take effect and the spending cuts begin to bite. Already, Republicans are considering legislation to give the administration greater flexibility in making the cuts, a step that could minimize the impact on the public. It's a step the White House says it opposes, although the depth of that conviction has yet to be tested.
At heart, the standoff is yet another indication of the political resistance to a compromise curbing the growth of Medicare, Medicaid and possibly Social Security, a step that both Obama and Republicans say is essential to restoring the nation's fiscal health. It is the last major remaining challenge in divided government's struggle, now in its third year, to reduce deficits by $4 trillion or more over a decade.
Counting the across-the-board cuts now beginning to command the nation's attention — at a 10-year cost of $1.2 trillion — the president and Congress have racked up more than $3.6 trillion in savings. Much came from spending, although legislation that Republicans let pass at year's end raised taxes on the wealthy to generate an estimated $600 billion for the Treasury over a decade. (See interactive graphics.)
The so-called sequester now approaching was never supposed to happen. It was designed as an unpalatable fallback, to take effect only in case a congressional super-committee failed to come up with $1 trillion or more in savings from benefit programs.
Now, more than a year later, Republicans are fond of saying that the idea itself originated at the White House.
That skips lightly over the fact that their own votes helped enact it into law.
Also that they decided a month ago that it marked the moment of most leverage in their struggle to maneuver Obama and Democrats into curtailing benefit programs. To accomplish that objective, they already have raised the debt limit without winning any cuts in exchange, a step they once vowed not to take. And within two weeks, they are likely to launch legislation making sure the government operates without interruption when current funding authority runs out for most agencies on March 27.
Republicans aren't the only ones partial to verbal sleights of hand.
In a letter to lawmakers earlier this month, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius sounded a series of alarms. The spending cuts "could compromise" the health of more than 373,000 mentally ill or emotionally disturbed individuals, "could slow efforts to improve" health care for American Indians and Alaska Natives, she wrote, and admissions to inpatient addiction facilities "could be reduced."
Could or could not. Soon or later. Nothing pinned down.
The administration hopes to win over the public and bring Republican lawmakers to heel, and it dispatched Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to the White House briefing room on Friday.
"Come to the table and start talking" to find a way to avert the cuts, the former GOP lawmaker urged members of his own Republican Party.
Peppered with skeptical questions, LaHood directed reporters to his department's website, with a listing of more than 300 air traffic facilities where overnight shifts could be eliminated or perhaps closed entirely.
Asked if his office was receiving unhappy calls from the public, he got to the political point.
"My phones will ring from members of Congress (asking) 'why is my control tower being closed?'" he said.