WASHINGTON - Governors from both parties are warning of the damaging impact if the White House and Congress fail to reach a deal to stave off across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect Friday that could undermine the fragile economic recovery now under way.
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 defence spending with hardly any leeway to save some programs from the budget knife. This would lead to furloughs for hundreds of thousands of workers at the Transportation Department, Defence Department and elsewhere.
The White House booked several Cabinet secretaries on the Sunday talk shows to detail the potential impact of the spending cuts from shuttered airports to off-limit seashores.
The so-called sequester now approaching was never supposed to happen. It was designed as an unpalatable fallback, to take effect only in case a specially established bipartisan congressional super-committee failed to come up with $1 trillion or more in savings from government programs.
"It's senseless and it doesn't need to happen," said Maryland's Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, during the annual meeting of the National Governors Association this weekend. "This really threatens to hurt a lot of families in our state and kind of flat line our job growth for the next several months."
Some governors were pessimistic about the prospects for a compromise. They said the budget impasse was just the latest crisis in Washington that is keeping business from hiring and undermining the ability of governors to develop state spending plans.
"I've not given up hope, but we're going to be prepared for whatever comes," said Nevada's Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval. "There will be consequences for our state."
Sen. John McCain, Obama's Republican rival in the 2008 election, said Obama should show leadership by inviting lawmakers to the presidential retreat at Camp David or the White House for a budget summit to hammer out a last-minute deal to avert the deep budget cuts set to take effect on March 1.
The Arizona Republican said on CNN's "State of the Union" that Obama should be talking with Republican lawmakers instead of demonizing them over the looming across-the-board cuts. He called the looming cuts to the Pentagon "unconscionable."
Obama has not been able to find success for his balanced approach of reducing deficits through a combination of targeted savings and tax increases. Obama has proposed closing tax loopholes that benefit the wealthiest Americans and corporations.
House Republicans have said reduced spending needs to be the focus and have rejected the president's demand to include higher taxes as part of a compromise. They say legislation passed in early January already raised taxes on the wealthiest Americans to generate an estimated $600 billion for the Treasury over a decade.
In detailing the costs of the cuts, Obama is seeking to raise the public's awareness while also applying pressure on congressional Republicans. But there are few signs of urgency among congressional leaders, who have recently indicated their willingness to let the cuts take effect and stay in place for weeks, if not much longer.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said travellers could face delays because the Federal Aviation Administration is in line for $600 million in spending cuts.
"We're going to try and cut as much as we possibly can out of contracts and other things that we do," LaHood told CNN's "State of the Union." ''But in the end, 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."
Still, top Republicans on Senate and House transportation and aviation panels accused the administration of raising an 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.
Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has said the cuts would harm the readiness of U.S. fighting forces. He said the "vast majority" of the Defence Department's 800,000 civilian workers would have to lose one day of work per week, or 20 per cent of their pay, for up to 22 weeks, probably starting in late April.
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has 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.
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 sequester 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.
Associated Press writers Steve Peoples and Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to this report.