The Obama administration is painting a dire portrait of the many ways the public will feel the effects of automatic federal spending cuts due to begin March 1.
The grim picture is emerging as the White House and lawmakers count down the days until the government is forced to trim $85 billion in domestic and defense spending with hardly any leeway to save some programs from the budget knife.
In detailing the costs of the cuts, President Barack Obama is seeking to raise the public's awareness while also applying pressure on congressional Republicans who oppose his blend of targeted savings and tax increases to tackle federal deficits.
"I've been very clear that these kinds of arbitrary, automatic cuts would have an adverse impact on families, on teachers, on parents who are reliant on Head Start programs, on our military readiness, on mental health services, on medical research," Obama said Friday. "This is not a smart way for us to reduce the deficit."
Just in case those consequences didn't capture the public's attention, the White House also had Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood spell out the impact on travelers: a frequent-flier nightmare of 90-minute airport waits, limited flights and closed regional airports. Republican lawmakers dismissed LaHood's warnings as "exaggerations.
But LaHood said the cuts would require slicing more than $600 million from the Federal Aviation Administration, resulting in furloughs of one day per pay period for a majority of the agency's 47,000 employees.
"Once airlines see the potential impact of these furloughs, we expect that they will change their schedules and cancel flights," LaHood said.
Moreover, he said, the Transportation Department is looking "to likely close" air traffic control towers at 100 airports that have fewer than 150,000 flight operations per year.
"We're talking about places like Boca Raton, Fla.; Joplin, Mo.; Hilton Head, S.C.; and San Marcos, Texas," he said. All in all, nearly two-thirds of the airports are concentrated in three states—California, Florida and Texas.
But in a statement, Airlines for America, an industry group, said the organization, the FAA and airline carriers would be meeting soon to plan for potential cutbacks. "Air transportation is a key driver of our economy, and should not be used as a political football," the statement said.
Paul Rinaldi, the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said the reductions will not just inconvenience passengers, it will also affect local economies and result in more lost jobs. "The fact that they will not just be furloughing critical FAA personnel but closing air traffic control towers means the system will be even more compromised than anticipated," he added.
Still, top Republicans on congressional transportation and aviation panels accused the administration of unnecessary alarm.
"Before jumping to the conclusion that furloughs must be implemented, the administration and the agency need to sharpen their pencils and consider all the options," the lawmakers said in a joint statement issued by Rep. Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure; Sen. John Thune, the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation; and Frank LoBiondo, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Aviation.
Throughout the administration, agency heads have been depicting an onerous after-effect to the cuts. The federal government is required to spell out the consequences to federal workers, but the details are also designed to warn lawmakers that the cuts could have a fearsome result: angry constituents. Some of the warnings:
— Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last week said that automatic cuts, known in Washington budget language as a sequester, would harm the readiness of U.S. fighting forces and he said the "vast majority" of the Defense Department's 800,000 civilian workers would have to lose one day of work per week, or 20 percent of their pay, for up to 22 weeks, probably starting in late April. The biggest potential losses, in term of total civilian payroll dollars, would be in Virginia, California, Maryland, Texas and Georgia, according to figures provided by the Pentagon.
— On Friday, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said cuts of more than $300 million to his agency would mean less money to solve outbreaks, fight hospital infections and keep illnesses overseas from making their way here. For instance, Dr. Tom Frieden said, the cuts could limit the agency's investigation of a tuberculosis outbreak in Los Angeles.
— At the National Park Service, employees would be furloughed, hours would be cut and sensitive areas would be blocked off to the public when there are staff shortages, according to a park service memo obtained by The Associated Press.
The giant sequoias at Yosemite National Park in California would go unprotected from visitors who might trample their shallow roots. At Cape Cod National Seashore, large sections of the Great Beach would close to keep eggs from being destroyed if natural resource managers are cut. Programs on the chopping block include invasive species eradication in Yosemite and comfort stations on the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi.
Gettysburg would decrease by one-fifth the number of school children who learn about the historic battle that was a turning point in the Civil War. And in Yosemite, park administrators fear that less frequent trash pickup would potentially attract bears into campgrounds.
Over the years, budget threats have inevitably resulted in grim warnings, no matter which administration, about calamitous consequences. Many have been avoided; others have been short-lived. But Obama administration officials say they are not exaggerating or bluffing.
The cuts, with few exceptions, are designed to hit all accounts equally. The law gives Obama little leeway to ease the pain.
Even if granted flexibility to apply the cuts with more discretion—a legislative step Republicans say they might pursue—White House officials say that would still require severe reductions.
"It's essentially rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," Obama senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said of such a proposal in a recent interview.
LaHood, in response to a question, denied that he was simply describing a worst-case scenario that would scare the public and put pressure on Republican lawmakers.
"What I'm trying to do," he said, "is wake up members of the Congress with the idea that they need to come to the table so we don't have to have this kind of calamity in air services in America."
Cone reported from Sacramento, Calif. Associated Press writer Joan Lowy and AP Medical Writer Lauran Neergaard contributed to this report.
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