Fiscal cliff talks remained in flux Saturday, and the details of a final deal, if there is one, remain unclear. But at a White House meeting of President Barack Obama and congressional leaders on Friday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he could not agree to delay or call off the automatic cuts unless Congress agreed to enact an alternative package of reductions of matching size.
That would seem a tall order given that spending cuts have been at the heart of the partisan divide over the past two years. A House Republican said after the Friday meeting that "it was clear that the sequester is not likely to be addressed in any immediate agreement."
And although Obama vowed during an October debate with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney that the cuts "would not happen," White House officials were telling liberal allies on Friday that their focus for now is merely to spare the middle class a tax increase.
The development was causing near panic among industry groups and others who have prodded Congress to cancel the cuts and have long believed elected officials who said they would do so.
"It would be a grave dereliction of duty to drop" a sequestration fix from a final deal, Marion Blakey, president and chief execute of the Aerospace Industries Association, said on Saturday. The group represents 300 aerospace and defense companies. "We can't believe they would fail our military and our economy like that."
The problem with sequestration is not so much the size of the cuts but their scope.
With the exception of a few programs specifically spared by Congress — including Medicaid, Medicare benefits and food stamps — every government account would be sliced by the almost same amount.
The White House has said that all domestic programs that were not specifically shielded would face an 8.2 percent cut next year. Military programs would be cut by 9.4 percent.