With Friday's deadline nearing, few in the nation's capital were optimistic that a realistic alternative could be found and all sought to cast the political process itself as the culprit. If Congress does not step in, a top-to-bottom series of cuts will be spread across domestic and defense agencies in a way that would fundamentally change how government serves its people.
And, yes, those cuts will hurt. The cuts would slash from domestic and defense spending alike, leading to furloughs for hundreds of thousands of government workers and contractors.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the cuts would harm the readiness of U.S. fighting forces. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said travelers could see delayed flights. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said 70,000 fewer children from low-income families would have access to Head Start programs. And furloughed meat inspectors could leave plants idled.
In Virginia, for instance, 90,000 Defense Department civilian employees could be furloughed, including nurses at Army hospitals, said Sen. Tim Kaine (D., Va.). He also said ship-repair contractors could lay off 300 of their 450 employees.
"There is no reason that this has to happen. We just need to find a balanced approach," Kaine said.
Some governors said the impasse was just the latest crisis in Washington that is keeping businesses from hiring and undermining the ability of state leaders to develop their own spending plans.
"It's senseless and it doesn't need to happen," said Gov. Martin O'Malley, (D., Md.) during the annual meeting of the National Governors Association this weekend.
"And it's a damn shame, because we've actually had the fastest rate of jobs recovery of any state in our region. And this really threatens to hurt a lot of families in our state and kind of flat line our job growth for the next several months," said O'Malley.
The budget cuts were all but certain to come up when Obama dines with the governors Sunday evening at the White House. But time to reach a deal is running out, and hope is waning.
Suggestions intended to instill a spirit of compromise included bringing all sides to the bargaining table, where they could act like "adults," a presidential summit at Camp David and even a field trip to watch
. Yet none of those options was on the books.