The Obama administration turned up the heat on the Republicans on Sunday, sending out a slew of cabinet secretaries to issue dire warnings about the impact of $85bn of government cuts should sequestration be allowed to strike.
With five days to go before the budget cuts automatically begin on 1 March, and with still no sign of a compromise deal taking shape, the White House put out a detailed dossier on Sunday night setting out the predicted impact of the cuts on each of the 50 states. The reports were clearly designed to increase pressure on wavering Republicans by forcing them to answer questions from local media in their constituencies about the effect of sequestration on hard-pressed families.
The file on Ohio, for instance, the home constituency of the leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives, John Boehner, warned that the cuts would cost the state $25m in funding for schools and put about 350 teachers' jobs at risk. Up to 26,000 civilian defence jobs in Ohio could be furloughed.
In Kentucky, the home constituency of the leading Republican senator Mitch McConnell, the report warned that almost $700,000 would be stripped from meals services for elderly people, there would be fewer vaccinations for children and services for victims of domestic violence would be ended.
The Sunday political talk shows hummed with recriminations between the two main parties over the pending sequestration. The sharpest words from the administration came from Arne Duncan, the education secretary, who said that even before the knife fell, teachers were already losing their jobs.
"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 CBS's Face the Nation. He said up to 40,000 teachers could lose their jobs, adding: "We don't have any ability with dumb cuts like this to figure out what the right thing is to do."
Further doom came from the transportation secretary Ray LaHood who has been highly visible in the past few days, warning about the impact of sequestration on civilian travel. "There has to be some kind of furlough of air traffic controllers, and that then will also begin to curtail or eliminate the opportunity for them to guide planes in and out of airports," he said on NBC's Meet the Press, referring to the $600m cuts destined for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Similar forebodings were delivered by Leon Panetta, the outgoing defense secretary. He said that the "vast majority" of civilian employees of the Pentagon would be forced to give up one day of work a week starting in late April.
The orchestrated round of warnings from the Obama administration did not impress a coterie of senior Republicans who were similarly paraded on the talk shows, blaming the White House for having brought the country to the brink of yet another "manufactured crisis". The governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, ridiculed the Democrats on Meet the Press, saying "they've rolled out this great political theater about how cutting less than three per cent of the federal budget is going to cause all these awful consequences."
He added a message to Obama: "Stop sending out your cabinet secretaries to scare the American people."
LaHood, speaking on behalf of the White House, countered that "we are not making this up in order to put pain on the American people".
The paradox about the current billowing storm over the sequestration is that these were cuts that were never supposed to happen. They were devised as a sort of sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of Congress members in 2011 to encourage them to reach a compromise deal on reducing the federal deficit; in the event that they fail despite the threat to reach accord, the cuts will automatically scheduled to begin on Friday.
With Congress getting back to business on Monday after a week's recess, the search for a way out of the impasse is likely to gather pace. Obama was set to meet governors from across the nation on Sunday night which will be an important moment as the individual states are certain to be heavily hit should the cuts go ahead.
Administration figures are stressing that though the deadline is close, there is still time for serious talks on the plan Obama has presented to avoid sequestration. But to get to that point, both main parties will have to find a way out of the current stalemate in which they appear to be more focused on apportioning blame than on finding solutions.
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