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Two days to cuts: What's Congress doing?

By Alan Silverleib, CNN Congressional Producer
February 27, 2013 -- Updated 2352 GMT (0752 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: GOP plan would require Obama to submit alternative cuts to Congress by March 15
  • During a visit to the Capitol, Obama talks briefly with Hill leaders about the cuts
  • Obama set to meet with congressional leaders at the White House on Friday
  • Republican says White House uses cuts to release undocumented workers with criminal records

Washington (CNN) -- We now have only two days left before $85 billion in widely disliked spending cuts start to take effect. So what's Congress doing Wednesday to deal with this self-inflicted crisis?

Congressional leaders saw President Barack Obama on the Hill.

But Obama wasn't there to talk about the cuts. Hill leaders did manage to have a brief conversation with the president, according to White House spokesman Jay Carney. There's no indication any serious progress was made on a deal to avoid or replace the cuts.

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Congressional leaders will meet Obama at the White House on Friday.

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But expectations are low. Republicans don't expect the meeting to be anything more than optics, an effort by the president to show he is at least talking to Congress on the day the cuts begin to kick in, a senior GOP aide told CNN

"Either someone needs to buy the White House a calendar, or this is just a belated farce," a congressional Republican said. "They ought to at least pretend to try."

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Senate should vote this week on plans to replace cuts or mitigate their impact.

But nobody expects those plans to go anywhere. Any plan put forward by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, or Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, will need at least 60 votes to win approval in the 100-member chamber. Neither leader is believed to be in a position to pull that off.

Regardless, Senate Republicans are pushing a proposal that could alleviate the impact of the cuts by giving the president flexibility to decide where they would occur. Under the GOP plan, Obama would be required to submit a list of replacement cuts to Congress by March 15 and couldn't cut defense by more than $42.7 billion.

Democrats worry that would let Republicans off the hook while placing responsibility for the cuts clearly on the president's shoulders; critics in both parties consider the idea an abdication of Congress's power of the purse.

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Democrats want to replace much of the sequester with more tax revenue collected from millionaires while also eliminating agriculture subsidies and reducing defense spending after the end of combat operations in Afghanistan next year. Republicans are virtually unified in opposing any new taxes -- a stance Reid called a deal killer on Tuesday.

"Until there's some agreement with revenue, I believe we should just go ahead" with the spending cuts, Reid told reporters on the Hill.

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The blame game goes on

Reid and McConnell both blamed the other party for the current quagmire during their Wednesday morning Senate floor speeches.

"Once again, Republicans are too busy fighting among themselves to unite behind a course of action," Reid said. "So they are instead doing nothing. Zero."

Let's "make sure everyone understands this is not President Obama's" package of cuts, Reid added. He said 174 House Republicans voted for them as did 28 GOP senators.

"Congress has the power to void these self-inflicted wounds. But Democrats can't do it alone. Republicans have to do their part," he said.

Shortly after Reid spoke, McConnell declared that Obama "wasn't elected to work with the Congress he wants. He was elected to work with the Congress he has, and that means working with both parties to get things done. It means leaving the gimmicks behind and working with us to hammer out a smarter solution" to his cuts.

"The president's party runs Washington," McConnell said. "It is time they got off the campaign trail and start working with us to govern for a change."

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Oh the humanity! House members to fly commercial

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told his GOP caucus that he is suspending the use of military aircraft for official travel by House members, according to an aide to the speaker. The suspension comes as Congress is required to reduce its own expenses.

"The speaker believes this is the prudent and responsible course of action, and it goes above and beyond the spending cuts the House will be implementing," the aide said.

GOP leader says Obama using cuts to release crooks

The White House was on the defensive Wednesday after House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, released a statement indicating his panel learned the administration has "ordered the release of an unspecified number of illegal immigrants in detention" due to the looming cuts.

"These detained illegal immigrants have either been charged or convicted of a crime, have a final order of deportation, are fugitives, or are suspected gang members," the statement noted.

"It's abhorrent that President Obama is releasing criminals into our communities to promote his political agenda" on the cuts, Goodlatte said Tuesday. "By releasing criminal immigrants onto the streets, the administration is needlessly endangering American lives. It also undermines our efforts to come together with the administration and reform our nation's immigration laws."

A statement Wednesday from Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that as "fiscal uncertainty remains over (government funding and potential cuts), ICE has reviewed its detained population to ensure detention levels stay within ICE's current budget. Over the last week, ICE has reviewed several hundred cases and placed these individuals on methods of supervision less costly than detention."

The statement stressed that "all of these individuals remain in removal proceedings. Priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety."

An administration official told CNN the decision to release certain undocumented workers was made by career ICE employees without any White House input. The official said the workers who were released are individuals with one-time misdemeanor convictions or similar offenses.

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CNN's Jim Acosta, Dana Bash, Tom Cohen, and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report

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