As federal cuts near, White House trades blame with Republicans

Published: Monday, Feb. 25, 2013 8:59 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — WASHINGTON — With no progress evident in Washington’s latest budget battle, the White House opened a new front Sunday by releasing state-by-state estimates on the effects of about $85 billion in spending reductions.

The across-the-board cuts are scheduled to take effect Friday, but the two sides appear more eager to pin blame than to avert a potential economic crisis.

One of President Barack Obama’s top aides acknowledged that a deal was unlikely before the deadline. The sequester, as the cuts are being called, is “going into effect because Republicans are choosing for it to go into effect,” senior White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Sunday.

But a leading Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, called on Obama to convene a summit and head off a potential crisis.

“I won’t put all the blame on the president of the United States, but the president leads,” McCain said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “The president should be calling us over somewhere — Camp David, the White House, somewhere — and sitting us down and trying to avert these cuts.”

Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire noted that Obama had assured the country, during a presidential debate last fall, that the cuts would “not happen.” She said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that “it’s time for him to lead this effort as the commander in chief of this country.”

Administration officials reject the idea that Obama hasn’t reached out to Republican lawmakers, pointing out that he spoke by phone with GOP leaders last week.

The president is leading a campaign to warn the public of potentially dire consequences. Polls show that Republicans will get most of the blame if the cuts take effect. The deadline was supposed to be a cudgel to force Congress to find other cuts instead, but that didn’t happen.

On the Sunday talk shows, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood repeated his prediction of serious airline delays if air traffic controllers are furloughed to help reduce expenses at the Federal Aviation Administration by $600 million over the next seven months.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned that as many as 40,000 teachers could lose their jobs as federal funding is cut for elementary and secondary schools. “There are literally teachers now who are getting pink slips, who are getting notices that they can’t come back this fall,” Duncan said on “Face the Nation.”

Fully half of the cuts will hit the military, one of the reasons that Democrats initially pushed the plan, believing — perhaps incorrectly — that defense-minded Republicans would never allow the cuts to take effect. Pfeiffer, in a conference call with reporters, rejected the idea that the White House had miscalculated, pointing to McCain and others who have called the cuts a bad idea.

McCain said Sunday that the effects on members of the armed services and their families were “unconscionable, because they deserve a predictable life in the military.” Referring to other, previously approved military spending reductions, McCain said: “We are already cutting defense. I can find lots of waste and mismanagement. But by God, across-the-board cuts are the worst and most cowardly way to approach this situation.”

Republicans have continued to resist Obama’s demand that increased taxes be part of any deal to avert the cuts, which economists said would slow economic growth and could cost as much as 750,000 jobs nationwide.

But some Democrats are concerned that their party could lose the political high ground over time, especially if most Americans don’t feel the cuts’ effects in their daily lives.

To dramatize the stakes, the White House put out reports Sunday night that projected the effects of the cuts on each of the 50 states.

In California, it said, approximately 64,000 civilian Defense Department workers would be furloughed and funding for military operations would be cut by about $69 million. California also is projected to lose about $12.4 million in funding to ensure clean water and air quality, another $1.9 million in grants for fish and wildlife protection, and some money for children’s immunizations.

In response, Michael Steel, a spokesman for Republican House Speaker John A. Boehner, said the White House “needs to spend less time explaining to the press how bad the sequester will be and more time actually working to stop it.”

The nation’s governors, in town for their annual winter meeting, have been drawn into the debate. Unlike the federal government, most states are required to balance their budgets annually, which has forced some of the most conservative Republicans to agree to tax increases this year.

On Saturday, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a potential GOP presidential candidate, won legislative approval of a transportation plan that includes new taxes on motor fuels and a sales tax increase.

On “Face the Nation,” Republican Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona did not rule out higher taxes as part of a federal budget deal in Washington.

“We don’t like increasing taxes but, you know, we know we have to be pragmatic. We know there has to be some type of compromise. But dang it, they need to get the job done. They don’t need to leave the public out there hanging,” she said.

But Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, another prospective 2016 Republican presidential candidate, rejected the need for increased taxes.

“My advice to the president is: ‘Stop the campaigning, stop sending out your Cabinet secretaries to scare the American people. Roll up your sleeves and do the hard work of governing,’” Jindal said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

One place where the two sides seemed to find common ground Sunday was in using the word “stupid” in the context of the spending debate.

Pfeiffer, the Obama aide, said that the Republican campaign to blame the White House for initially proposing the automatic cuts was “a fairly stupid one,” since most Republicans in Congress voted for the deal. And Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who voted against it, said on “Fox News Sunday” that the automatic reductions “are a stupid way to cut spending.”

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