"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."
In a cycle of crisis followed by compromise over the past two years, Obama and congressional Republicans have agreed to more than $3.6 trillion in long-term deficit savings over a decade.
None of the savings to date has come from the big benefit programs that lawmakers in both parties say must be tackled if the country is to gain control over its finances. Each party fears the political fallout of confronting them on their own, but Democrats, in particular, are reluctant to scale back programs that they count as their political birthright.
Their rival speeches on the Senate floor weren't the first time that Toomey and Murray disagreed on economic issues.
Both served on a so-called congressional Supercommittee in 2011 that was charged with producing at least $1.2 trillion in savings over a decade.
The panel deadlocked, automatically triggering the across-the-board cuts that now are imminent.
As constituted, the cuts would total $85 billion through the end of the current budget year — Sept. 30 — half each from defense and non-defense programs. Large parts of the budget are off-limits, including programs for veterans, Social Security and Medicare benefits.
The Republican alternative would have required Obama to propose an alternative that relied exclusively on spending cuts, ruled out tax increases and limited what he could take from Pentagon accounts.
The Democratic measure would have canceled the $85 billion in cuts, and replaced them with a combination of tax increases and cuts to defense and farm programs that would phase in over a decade. Deficits would have risen by more $42 billion in the first year and $38 billion over the two following years before gradually beginning to decline.
While the White House has issued a steady stream of severe warnings about the impact of across-the-board cuts, the president said Wednesday night, "This is not a cliff, but it is a tumble downward. It's conceivable that in the first week, the first two weeks, the first three weeks, the first month ... a lot of people may not notice the full impact of the sequester."
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn, Laurie Kellman and Donna Cassata contributed to this story.