Barack Obama delivered a grim warning to the nation's governors at the White House on Monday about the impact of across-the-board spending cuts if Congress fails to find a deal by Friday's deadline.
Obama urged the governors, many of them Republicans, to put pressure on their congressional colleagues this week. But a deal by Friday appears increasingly unlikely, with no negotiations even underway between the two sides.
With no deal in place, $85bn in spending cuts will begin to kick in, about half from the Pentagon and the rest from domestic spending. These will have knock-on effects on teaching jobs, health programmes, air travel and hundreds of other areas funded by the federal government.
Obama, addressing the governors in Washington for their annual conference, said: "The last thing you want to see is Washington get in the way of progress. Unfortunately, in just four days, Congress is poised to allow a series of arbitrary, automatic budget cuts to kick in that will slow our economy, eliminate good jobs and leave a lot of folks who are already pretty thinly stretched scrambling to figure out what to do."
Thousands of teachers will be laid off, he said, tens of thousands of parents will be struggling to find alternative child care and health programmes such as flu shots and cancer screening will be curtailed.
"These impacts will not be all be felt on day one but rest assured the uncertainty is already having an effect," Obama said. "Companies are preparing lay-off notices, families are preparing to cut back on expenses and the longer these cuts are in place the bigger the impact will become."
He then made a direct appeal to the governors to put pressure on their congressional colleagues. "So while you are in town I hope you speak to your congressional delegations and remind them in no uncertain terms what is at stake," the president said.
The White House prefaced Obama's remarks by releasing a report detailing the impact of the cuts state by state, on Sunday evening.
Janet Napolitano, the homeland security secretary, ratcheted up the pressure, warning that cuts in federal spending would mean a reduction in the number of border patrols. She said that she could not be confident of stopping entry by terrorists.
Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, accused the president of employing scare tactics. Speaking after the meeting between Obama and the governors at the White House, Jindal said: "I think the president needs to show leadership. The president needs to stop campaigning, stop trying to scare the American people, stop trying to scare states."
The Republican House speaker, John Boehner, held a late afternoon press conference at the Capitol that simply confirmed that no negotiations appeared to be under way and that the chances of a deal by Friday seemed slim.
Asked if Friday's sequester is now inevitable, Boehner replied, without much conviction: "Hope springs eternal." He said that Obama could sit down with the Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, and work out a deal.
The Republican House majority leader, Eric Cantor, accused Obama of exaggerating the consequences, describing as "false choices" the scenarios being presented by the president.
Some Republican governors appeared to be more receptive than their congressional colleagues, expressing concern about the impact of the spending reductions at state level.
Speaking before Obama's remarks, Mary Fallin, Republican governor of Oklahoma, said the burden of the deficit cuts should not be shifted from federal level to the states. She added that states were already facing challenges in dealing with their own budgets.
Obama is to follow up his remarks to the governors with a visit Tuesday to Newport News, Virginia, where many civilian jobs are dependent on military spending, to underline the consequences of the defence cuts.
Speaking to the governors, he offered a preview of his speech in Newport News, saying that if there is no deal on spending, thousands of shipyard repair workers will be laid off and an aircraft carrier under repair would sit idle when it should be heading for the Gulf.
According to the White House report, Virginia would see 90,000 civilians employed by the Defense Department forced to take leave.
The president, having successfully confronted Republicans in Congress in the last economic showdown at the turn of the year, is looking for another win. Without it, he could find it harder to squeeze through Congress the big-ticket reforms he is seeking on gun control and immigration.
The Republican House speaker, John Boehner, who took a battering over the fiscal cliff deal, seems unwilling to negotiate with the White House this time round.
Some Democrats in Congress are sanguine about the cuts, happy to see military spending, viewed as too big anyway, take the brunt. Republicans, traditionally big backers of high military spending, would prefer to see welfare and other domestic programs hit harder. But this time Republicans appear to have made budget cuts the priority, even if military spending is the main casualty.
Both Republican and Democrats are planning to introduce bills on spending this week but these are symbolic and partisan, with no chance of being passed.
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