By Jeff Mason and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON, Feb 27 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will meet with top congressional leaders on Friday to discuss the deep, automatic U.S. government spending cuts slated to go into effect that day, congressional and White House officials said on Wednesday.
Obama is set to meet with Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader.
The meeting would be the first between the leaders this year, despite weeks of haggling over whether and how Washington could avoid the cuts known as the “sequester,” which the White House has warned will cause damage to U.S. economic growth.
“The meeting Friday is an opportunity for us to visit with the president about how we can all keep our commitment to reduce Washington spending,” McConnell said in a statement.
“We can either secure those reductions more intelligently, or we can do it the president’s way with across-the-board cuts. But one thing Americans simply will not accept is another tax increase to replace spending reductions we already agreed to,” he said.
Obama has pressed for a deal to avoid the cuts that includes closing tax loopholes that affect wealthier Americans. Republicans, who agreed to an increase in tax rates for households making more than $450,000 a year as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal that went into effect earlier this year, want a deal that focuses solely on cuts in government spending.
One congressional Republican aide criticized the White House for calling the meeting after the cuts, which are split between social programs cherished by Democrats and defense spending championed by Republicans, were slated to go into effect.
“If the President is serious about stopping the sequester, why did he schedule a meeting on Tuesday for Friday when the sequester hits at midnight on Thursday?” the aide said. “Either someone needs to buy the White House a calendar, or this is just a - belated - farce. They ought to at least pretend to try.”
A White House official confirmed the Friday meeting but did not provide further details on the reason for its timing.