As the clock ticked toward $85 billion in dreaded federal spending cuts Thursday, many members of Congress, who would have to vote on a last-minute deal, skipped out of Washington.
And when exactly does the sequester begin? That was in doubt too.
"I think the sequester is crazy, I think the president had to show more leadership, Congress should do more," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., as he headed back to Long Island. "But just to sit here by myself serves no purpose."
King was one of many congressmen who, before noon on Thursday, walked down the Capitol steps and into awaiting cars to leave Washington, CNN reports. Democrats criticized Republicans for not even sticking around when the cuts start coming; Republicans, in turn, blasted Democrats for not stepping up to do more to restrain spending.
There was plenty of blame being cast, but little action.
The Republican-controlled House held one vote Thursday on the Violence Against Women Act. The chamber had no votes scheduled on Friday. Neither did the Senate.
There will be some movement Friday, if only because that's when President Barack Obama would be required to start implementing the cuts through the end of the current fiscal year.
Also, the president is set to meet with congressional leaders from both parties at the White House.
"I mean, we could stay here ... and not pass ... a bill," said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., as he left the Capitol. "That's not any better."
It was also unclear quite when the sequester would begin.
The law requiring across-the-board spending cuts is vague, Politico reports. It only says March 1.
The White House Office of Management and Budget has until 11:59 p.m. Friday to actually issue the official sequestration notice that starts the entire process. That’s also when OMB will transmit a report to Congress detailing cuts in every affected agency’s budget account. Obama must actually issue an order to trigger OMB’s actions, Politico notes.
That means that technically, the sequestration will not have started when Obama meets with congressional leaders at the White House on Friday.
Spokesmen for all four Capitol Hill leaders acknowledged in emails Friday that it’s their understanding that OMB does have until 11:59 p.m. to issue the sequestration order.
Once the order goes out, agencies can officially begin issuing furlough notices to many of the federal government’s 4.4 million workers, though then there’s a 30-day waiting period in most cases before the furloughs actually take effect.
But some agencies could start issuing their furloughs during the day Friday anyway. The Office of Personnel Management issued guidance on furloughs in January that stated simply that the sequester would take effect on March 1, 2013.
It seems the White House is going to wait for the last minute to enforce the spending cuts.
“My understanding is it happens at midnight on Friday, 11:59 p.m.,” Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday.
Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who heads back to the table with Obama Friday, has dug in deeper, The New York Times reports, refusing to discuss any tax increase and putting the burden on the Senate to produce a measure aimed at the cuts.
“The revenue issue is now closed,” Boehner said Thursday, before the House left town for the weekend without acting on the cuts and a Senate attempt to avert them died. He said the dispute with Democrats amounted to a question of “how much more money do we want to steal from the American people to fund more government.”
“I’m for no more,” he said.