With furloughs creating long lines and short tempers at airports, the American public is feeling the pain of the sequester cuts that went into effect six weeks ago — prompting some Democrats to renew calls for a temporary fix.
Unable to push through tax hikes, Democrats now want to use projected savings from ending the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to erase the next five months of the sequester.
"We've seen the dire effects of these arbitrary spending cuts," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. "We have an obligation to stop them."
Republicans vowed to stop the Democratic plan, saying it relied on a budget gimmick: All sides expect war spending to drop anyway, so the GOP says counting that as new savings is unfair.
Many Republicans say the airport flight delays are the latest sequester pain that the administration has manufactured in order to make the budget cuts as difficult for the public as possible.
The sequester cuts took effect March 1, but despite the White House's warnings, initial impact was minimal. Warnings of airport delays, shuttered national parks and halted meat-packing inspections didn't come to fruition.
The Federal Aviation Administration, however, began furloughing air traffic controllers this week, producing delays at some of the country's busiest airports.
With fewer controllers on duty, airports have added more time between outgoing flights, stranding some planes on runways for hours.
The FAA warned Tuesday that the situation is going to get worse.
"Travelers can expect to see a wide range of delays that will change throughout the day depending on staffing and weather-related issues," the agency said — though it stressed that of the more than 2,600 delays reported Monday, only 1,200 were related to the furloughs, while the rest were usual delays.
As of March 1, the sequesters totaled $85 billion through the end of the year.
This week's flight delays have sparked another round of finger-pointing on Capitol Hill.
"To me, it certainly seems as if politics is playing a significant role in determining what actions the FAA is taking — and every indication I have from conversations with my colleagues is that it emanates from the White House," said Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican who earlier fought to try to keep the FAA from shuttering dozens of control towers in less-prominent airports.
Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, called the delays "a manufactured crisis."
"There are many options that the FAA itself, and the Department of Transportation as a whole, have to avoid this impact — this disastrous impact on the traveling public," Ms. Collins said.
White House Spokesman Jay Carney countered by blaming Republicans for refusing to embrace President Obama's plan to "reduce our deficit in a balanced way."
"These delays are a result of the sequester that Republicans insisted take place," Mr. Carney said, before adding that Congress should move to stop the cuts. "The best way for Congress to fix this problem is to replace sequestration with a smarter approach to deficit reduction."
Back on Capitol Hill, Mr. Reid warned that the backed-up flights are just a taste of the pain to come, and that his proposal will give them five months to hash out a better solution.
"Let's put a stop to the furloughs and delays," Mr. Reid said. "Let's put a stop to the job losses. Let's put a stop to the devastating cuts to programs that keep our poor children from getting an equal shot in life — our seniors citizens, our homeless veterans and the most vulnerable among us from falling through the cracks."
Mr. Reid's plan would set an absolute cap on how much money could be spent on Iraq and Afghanistan over the next 10 years. All sides expect the spending to drop anyway, but under budget rules the Congressional Budget Office assumes that spending in future years will be the same as now. Capping spending means CBO would recalculate its figures and show savings, which Mr. Reid would pump back into the budget to cancel the sequesters.
Republicans countered that the White House could blunt the worst effects if it wanted. The GOP said the FAA already has flexibility to reallocate money and could have cut its budget without furloughing controllers.
In February, Republicans tried to give Mr. Obama complete flexibility to rearrange the sequesters, picking and choosing what should be cut. But the White House said it didn't want that power, and Senate Democrats blocked that plan.
On Tuesday, Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, slammed Mr. Reid's latest push to use war money, saying that the U.S. is already running a deficit so canceling the sequesters means going deeper into debt.
"Our problem is that we are continuing to spend money that we don't have," Mr. Coburn said. "We've created a situation where we are going to discomfort and inconvenience hundreds of thousands of American people on a political point because we can't cut any spending in Washington."
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