The immediate impact of the reductions on the public was uncertain, and the administration pulled back on its earlier warnings of long lines developing quickly at airports and teacher layoffs affecting classrooms.
On the Senate floor, a Republican proposal requiring Obama to propose alternative cuts that would cause less disruption in essential government services fell to overwhelming Democratic opposition, 62-38.
Moments later, a Democratic alternative to spread the cuts over a decade and replace half with higher taxes on millionaires and corporations won a bare majority, 51-49, but that was well shy of the 60 needed to advance. Republicans opposed it without exception.
In a written statement after the votes, Obama lambasted Republicans. "They voted to let the entire burden of deficit reduction fall squarely on the middle class," he said.
He noted that he would meet with congressional leaders from both parties at the White House on Friday, but no one is expecting action before the cuts begin taking effect. Obama said, 'We can build on the over $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction we've already achieved, but doing so will require Republicans to compromise."
Said House Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress: "Obama and Senate Democrats are demanding more tax hikes to fuel more 'stimulus' spending."
Though furloughs are a fear for some, especially certain federal workers, there is little sign of business worry, let alone panic in the nation. Stocks declined slightly for the day after trading near record highs. And unlike the "fiscal cliff" showdown of two months ago, there are no deadlines for action to prevent tax increases from hitting nearly every American.
Still, there was talk of crisis.
"We have the opportunity to avoid the kind of calamity and disaster that is being threatened and is completely unnecessary," said Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who co-authored the Republican proposal.
"The question is, are we going to achieve these savings through badly designed spending cuts that make no attempt whatever to distinguish between more sensible government spending and less sensible spending?"
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington said that was precisely what Democrats had tried to do by proposing the deferral of Pentagon cuts until U.S. combat troops have come home from Afghanistan in two years' time.
At the same time, she said the Democrats had reasonably proposed replacing half of the pending cuts with higher taxes on "the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations."
In fact, the Democratic measure also included small increases for a variety of small programs such as biodiesel education, assistance for biomass crops and certification of organic foods.
Some Republicans held out hope the current struggle might lead to talks on completing work on the final piece of a deficit reduction package that has been more than two agonizing years in the making.
"The objective here ought to be not just to deal with sequester but to deal with the underlying spending problems, which require tax reform" as well as reform of benefit programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security," said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
Democratic senators emerged from a lunch with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and top Pentagon officials and said the current cuts could not be allowed to stand. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said the session had confirmed to him that as currently constituted, the cuts were "a really, really dumb idea."