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White House: cuts mean 'perfect storm' of air delays

US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano speaks at the White House February 25, 2013 in Washington
US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano speaks during a daily press briefing at the White House February 25, 2013 in Washington.

The Obama administration warned Monday of a "perfect storm" of airport delays and less secure US borders when huge spending cuts hit this week, as a top Republican slammed White House "scare" tactics.

Political acrimony escalated another notch ahead of $85 billion of cuts, known as the sequester, due to slam the government on March 1, but there was no sign of any effort by Democrats or Republicans to break the impasse.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned of the consequences of the cuts, as she became the latest cabinet official enrolled in a countrywide White House media blitz intended to pile blame on Republicans.

"At the major international airports, we will be limited in accepting new international flights, and average wait times to clear customs will increase by as much as 50 percent," Napolitano said.

"At our busiest airports... peak wait times, which can reach over two hours, could easily grow to four hours or more," Napolitano said, warning that budget cuts would hit security and customs officers at major hubs.

"You really have a perfect storm in terms of the ability to move around the country," she said, adding that waits at the southwest US land border could be five hours, and delays for cargo at American ports could last five days.

Napolitano also said that reduced overtime, furloughs and hiring freezes for border agents would make the US border less secure and make it harder to stop illegal immigration.

While stopping short of saying that the United States would be more prone to terror attacks, she said sequestration would make the work of securing the country "awfully, awfully tough."

The idea for the automatic, arbitrary budget cuts emerged as a way to ease a previous showdown between Obama and Republicans in Congress.

US President Barack Obama speaks at the White House February 25, 2013 in Washington
US President Barack Obama speaks to members of the National Governors Association in the State Dining Room of the White House February 25, 2013 in Washington.

The massive reductions to the military and domestic budget were supposed to be so severe that both sides would be forced to strike an agreement to cut the deficit, but no such deal has been reached in an ever dysfunctional Washington.

Obama on Monday hit out at the polarized political atmosphere in the US capital, telling his foes that at some point they had to agree to govern.

The president is calling on congressional Republicans to agree to stave off the cuts by closing tax loopholes that benefit the rich and corporations to raise new revenues, along with a program of targeted spending cuts.

"We can't just cut our way to prosperity. Cutting alone is not an economic policy," Obama told Democratic and Republican governors at the White House.

Many Republicans agree that the sequester is a bad way to trim the deficit but they argue that Obama is not serious about reining in spending.

Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, who is a possible 2016 presidential candidate, emerged from the meeting with Obama and issued a searing attack on the president's handling of the sequester.

"There is a responsible way to cut less than three percent of the federal budget," Jindal told reporters. "I think it is time for the president to show leadership. This administration has an insatiable appetite for new revenues.

"Enough is enough. The president needs to stop campaigning, stop trying to scare the American people."

Republican House Speaker John Boehner also dug in, saying that Obama had succeeding in securing higher tax rates on the rich in a previous standoff late last year and could not expect to do so again.

Boehner also accused Obama of using the armed forces as "campaign props" after the White House warned the sequester would harm military readiness and delayed the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Gulf.

The cuts will slash defense spending by at least $55 billion and non-defense discretionary spending by $27 billion this year.

The Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington estimates that one million jobs could be lost.

The Congressional Budget Office predicts growth, already down by 0.1 percent last quarter, could slip 0.7 percent as government departments and related businesses stagger under the sequester's impact.