White House highlights travel disruptions

Says flight delays will cascade if cuts take effect

Small-airport control towers would be shut if sequestration cuts go into effect, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.
Charles Dharapak/AP Photo
Small-airport control towers would be shut if sequestration cuts go into effect, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.

WASHINGTON — The White House on Friday warned of potentially severe disruptions in air travel if across-the-board spending cuts take effect in less than a week, as President Obama intensified pressure on congressional Republicans to entertain spending reductions and tax increases to avoid furloughing federal workers and limiting services.

The focus on what Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said was the high likelihood of cascading flight delays and closed towers at smaller airports showed that the Obama administration believed that the threat of widespread travel problems could sway the public and encourage voters to force Republicans to the bargaining table.

At the same time, though, Obama privately told Democratic governors that his public campaign against Republicans was not producing results, as the two sides remained far apart.


In a session at the White House complex, the president and Vice President Joe Biden tried to enlist the Democratic governors to reach out to their Republican counterparts at a National Governors Association meeting this weekend to push congressional leaders to the table.

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The Democratic governors said Obama expressed extreme frustration and short-term pessimism that Republicans would accept any plan with new federal revenue.

‘‘What he was saying is, ‘There’s nothing that I can do to get these folks to come to the table with a balanced approach,’ ’’ said Governor Peter Shumlin of Vermont, the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. ‘‘If we’re willing to give millionaires and billionaires more breaks, and take from Americans who are struggling in the middle class, they’re willing to talk. I don’t think any of us are optimistic.’’

LaHood, a former Republican congressman who was drafted as a spokesman partly because of his experience in dealing with Republicans on Capitol Hill, announced at the White House that $600 million in cuts to the Federal Aviation Administration would shut down more than 100 air traffic control towers at small airports in sites such as like Joplin, Mo., and Boca Raton, Fla. He predicted travel delays at major airports in peak periods of up to 90 minutes because of the reduction in flight controllers, and said that as airlines adjusted to federal furloughs, flights probably would be canceled and schedules changed.

‘‘These are harmful cuts with real-world consequences that will cost jobs and hurt our economy,’’ LaHood said.


Obama’s pessimism appeared to be an acknowledgment that the White House had made significant miscalculations in the spending fight. After the election, the administration anticipated that the president’s victory and his better standing with the public would push Republicans into some compromise.

In addition, in striking the 2011 deal to raise the nation’s statutory borrowing limit, Democrats believed that Republican reluctance to allow deep cuts to the Pentagon would lead them to back off the automatic cuts, known as the sequester.

But Friday, Republicans remained adamant that they would accept no tax increases to head off the cuts. Republicans say they are willing to instead get some savings from programs not covered by Congress’ annual spending bills, such as food stamps, Medicaid, and children’s health insurance.

The House twice passed bills to do that last year. But Republicans say they already swallowed $600 billion in tax increases in the New Year’s Eve deal that ended the last budget impasse.

‘‘The president got $600 billion in higher taxes just last month, with no spending cuts,’’ said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for speaker John Boehner. ‘‘His appetite for tax hikes evidently knows no end. If the president really believes in ‘balance,’ it’s time to finally deal with our spending problem.’’


Barring a last-minute deal that is more improbable by the day, $85 billion in spending cuts will go into force March 1, slicing many domestic programs by 9 percent and carving 13 percent from unprotected military programs during the fiscal year.

Sequester warnings

Some at the governors’ meeting with the president said he believed that there was still an opportunity for a deal in the months ahead, but not in the next week.

‘‘I think he’s long-term optimistic,’’ said Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland. ‘‘Short-term, he believes Republicans seem hellbent on slowing job recovery through sequestration, which in some perverse way they see as a win.’’

Publicly, the president maintained a faint hope that a deal could still be reached before Friday.

‘‘Hope springs eternal,’’ he told reporters during a meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. ‘‘And I will just keep on making my case not only to Congress, but more importantly the American people to take a smart approach to deficit reduction and do it in a way that doesn’t endanger our economy and endanger jobs.’’

So far, Congress’ return to Washington next week holds little prospect for a resolution. The Senate will vote next week — probably Wednesday — on competing Democratic and Republican sequester plans, and neither is expected to get the 60 votes necessary to pass under the rules that will be adopted.

The Senate Democratic legislation would cancel the cuts for the 2013 fiscal year with a $110 billion plan that would establish a 30 percent minimum tax rate for income higher than $1 million, tax tar sands oil, cut farm subsidies and slice $27.5 billion from military spending after most troops have been withdrawn from Afghanistan.

Senate Republicans have not yet decided which alternative they will offer. One would pay off this year’s cuts by imposing a 10-year hiring freeze on federal workers.