Obama’s decision Friday to remove the threat of a government shutdown in late March as a leverage point in the standoff means that the sequester will remain in place for weeks — if not months, or longer. He set into a motion a risky strategy that rests entirely on the slim chance that Republicans do an about-face on tax hikes after a public outcry…

Over the past few weeks, he marshaled all the powers of his office to raise pressure on Republicans. He sought to speed the result by releasing state-by-state details of the pain and suffering the sequester will cause. Even after scaling back slightly after being criticized for painting too apocalyptic a picture, Obama continued to use the presidential bully pulpit to hammer the message in a way that the divided Republican Party could not.

But in a setback for the president, he couldn’t splinter Republicans in time to avert the cuts

Perhaps the only way to lift the sequester, White House officials said, is if all sides agree to once again attempt a grand bargain on deficit reduction that includes an entitlement overhaul, tax reform and spending cuts.

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While the White House and Congress failed to reach an agreement to avoid automatic spending cuts that began taking effect on March 1, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said she is still open to the idea of a “big agreement” to address the country’s long-term fiscal challenges, as long as it addresses both tax reform and entitlement reform.

“If we’re going to increase revenue again it’s got to go to the debt with real entitlement reform and real tax reform, where you actually lower rates,” Ayotte told me this morning on “This Week.” ”Absolutely I think we need to do a big agreement for the country. Because we haven’t dealt with the fundamental drivers of our debt.”…

“Why can’t both sides work together to do this in a more sensible way?” Ayotte asked.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Sunday that he is interested in continuing talks with President Obama about finding different spending cuts than the ones included in the $85 billion sequester that went into effect on Friday.

But he said Republicans are standing firm against raising “a dime in taxes to turn off the sequester” and that the “modest” cuts agreed to in August 2011 must go forward without including tax increases to help offset them, in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

McConnell said that by calling for the tax hikes to replace cuts, President Obama and congressional Democrats are “walking away” from their agreement and failing to tackle the nation’s real fiscal problems.

“We have a spending addiction in Washington,” he said.

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“I definitely read a change in tone in [Friday’s] press conference,” said one Senate aide. “Obama’s tone has clearly shifted on the sequester. By using his press conference to call out those who’ve been predicting the apocalypse over the past few weeks, he was really calling out nobody more than himself. In that moment, I think, a lot of Republicans realized that the ground had shifted in this debate. The president overplayed his hand, and he knows it.”

“I thought the real news of the press conference was his admission that sequestration isn’t the apocalypse,” said another Senate aide. “And basically that the sky won’t fall. If he doesn’t direct his administration to pull the sky down (illegal immigrant releases, etc.) in the next few months, that will be a sign that his fever is breaking and he is ready to move on. Both Boehner and McConnell are adamant about not raising more taxes so hopefully he sees the writing on the wall.”…

“It’s still not clear he’s willing to actually cut spending,” said another House aide. “And that’s what is necessary.”

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In an exclusive interview with NBC’s Meet the Press, House Speaker John Boehner said there is no easy way to stop the budget cuts — known as the “sequester” – that began taking effect Friday night, and voiced uncertainty over how Washington can solve the overall fiscal problems that have consumed the nation’s politics for more than two years.

“I don’t think anyone quite understands how it gets resolved,” Boehner admitted in his interview with NBC’s David Gregory…

But Boehner said Obama had already gotten his tax increase in the deal that he made with Republicans in December. “The president got $650 billion of higher taxes on the American people on January the first,” Boehner said. “How much more does he want?”

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Former Massachusetts governor and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney criticized President Barack Obama on Sunday for not finding a way to stop the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts that went into effect Friday…

“To date what we have seen is the president out campaigning to the American people, doing rallies around the country, flying around the country and berating Republicans,” Romney said in an appearance with his wife, Ann, on “Fox News Sunday,” saying such an approach only intensifies partisanship.

“I wish I were there. It kills me not to be there, not to be in the White House, doing what needs to be done,” Romney said.