The US Senate has failed to reach a compromise that would avert broad automatic government spending cuts, just hours before they were to begin to take effect. Each party has blamed the other for the failure.
The Senate on Thursday voted down two separate proposals that would have replaced existing legislation and prevented the automatic austerity measures from kicking in on Friday.
Although there appeared to be broad agreement about the need to avert the $85 billion (65 billion euros) in automatic cuts known in Washington as the "sequester," the two parties are at odds about how to do it.
President Barack Obama's Democrats presented a bill in the Senate designed to generate more revenue for the government by increasing taxes on high earners. The Republicans' proposal did not include provisions to raise more tax revenue, but would have given the president the power to determine on which spending programs the axe should fall.
Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer accused the Republicans of deliberately undermining his party's efforts to avoid the sequester.
"Rather than hash out the best way to replace sequestration, the conversation has instead revolved around who came up with the idea in the first place," Schumer said. "The truth is both sides have their fingerprints on sequestration, but only one side is trying hard to solve it."
Republican House Speaker John Boehner hurled a similar accusation at the Democrats.
"Now that today's political stunt to raise taxes has failed, it's time for the president and Senate Democrats to do the hard work that is necessary to pass a bill in the Senate so we can begin to resolve this issue," Boehner said.
With no compromise on the cards ahead of Friday's deadline, the focus now shifts to the White House. President Obama plans to hold talks on the issue with key figures from both parties.
Speaking after Thursday's votes, he accused the Republicans of "threatening our economy with a series of arbitrary, automatic budget cuts that will cost us jobs and slow our recovery."
Perhaps ironically, while the two parties have so far been unable to find a way to work together to end the sequester, the measure itself was actually passed as a bipartisan solution to an earlier fiscal emergency in 2011. The broad package of cuts was meant to be so painful, that it would be act as an incentive for the two parties to reach a more palatable compromise to reign in the country's massive debt.
pfd/ccp (AFP, dpa, Reuters, AP)