The Obama administration on Monday warned the nation to expect an increase in illegal immigration if the automatic budget cuts go into effect Friday — the latest caution from a White House determined to raise the heat on congressional Republicans.
President Obama has framed the choice as one between higher taxes or lower security, bolstered by Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano’s warning Monday that the U.S. Border Patrol will be forced to furlough agents, costing nearly a quarter of the workforce.
“I don’t think we can maintain the same level of security,” Ms. Napolitano said. “If you have 5,000 fewer Border Patrol agents, you have 5,000 fewer Border Patrol agents.”
But Republicans said the White House is setting up “a false choice” between tax increases and security. They said the other alternative is to make $85 billion in spending cuts in other parts of the budget, rather than the across-the-board cuts that make up the sequester.
Indeed, Republican Senate aides said they likely will offer a plan to give the administration flexibility to protect key missions when the chamber debates the spending cut package this week. Senate Democrats have proposed a 30 percent minimum tax on the wealthy and cutting agriculture subsidies in order to head off the cuts. Neither plan is expected to pass.
The sequesters were set into motion by the 2011 debt deal, which gave Mr. Obama the authority to raise the federal debt limit in exchange for two sets of spending cuts. Mr. Obama has used up the debt leverage, but relatively few of the spending cuts have taken place.
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Congress and Mr. Obama delayed the sequesters in January’s tax deal, pushing the deadline to this Friday.
Now, both sides on Capitol Hill seem likely to let the cuts take effect and then wait to see who suffers in the political fallout.
Mr. Obama has spent the past several weeks trying to set the stage for Republicans to take the heat. Over the weekend, the White House said the cuts will mean fewer battered women receiving help in Kentucky, children having to forgo vaccines in Georgia and 350 teaching jobs being lost in Ohio.
On Monday, the president tried to rally the nation’s governors, in Washington this week for their annual meeting, to join his push for tax increases instead of facing those cuts.
“Unfortunately in just four days, Congress is poised to allow a series of arbitrary, automatic budget cuts to kick in that will slow our economy,” Mr. Obama told the governors, gathered at the White House. “These cuts do not have to happen. Congress can turn them off any time with just a little bit of compromise.”
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Some Republican governors fired back, saying they asked Mr. Obama to delay some of his planned health care spending instead of cutting existing programs such as education.
“I said if these cuts really are that devastating, would he at least consider delaying some of the new spending instead of cutting existing programs? And he disagreed with that,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told reporters. “He did not want to do that.”
Mr. Obama will continue to raise pressure on Republicans with a trip to Newport News, Va., on Tuesday, where he will visit a shipbuilding yard and argue that the cuts will idle a chunk of the Navy’s fleet. The trip, though, has done little to move Republicans, who said the president should be working with his own party leaders on Capitol Hill.
“Instead of using our military men and women as campaign props, if the president was serious, he’d sit down with [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid and begin to address our problems,” House Speaker John A. Boehner told reporters in an afternoon news conference.
Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican and Congress’ top waste-watcher, said the federal government can begin to control spending immediately.
He sent a letter to the White House budget office Monday pointing to job openings the government has advertised, including 10 slots for drivers at the State Department, at wages up to $26.45 an hour, and a Labor Department staff assistant to handle scheduling and screen phone calls, at a salary of up to $81,204 a year.
“Are any of these positions more important than an air traffic controller, a border patrol officer, a food inspector, a TSA screener, or a civilian supporting our men and women in combat in Afghanistan?” Mr. Coburn asked in his letter to White House budget office acting Director Jeffrey Zients.
The budget office didn’t respond to a request for comment Monday.
The sequester cuts won’t be felt immediately, as agencies decide how to impose the cuts over the rest of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Congress will get a do-over in late March when it reaches a deadline for a set of annual appropriations bills to keep the government open — giving lawmakers a chance to rewrite all discretionary spending levels.
For now, though, the political battle remains intense.
As part of its public relations war, the White House has been bringing out Cabinet members such as Ms. Napolitano and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to warn that the cutbacks will result in longer waits at airports and ports of entry as a result of furloughed federal employees.
Ms. Napolitano said the cuts to her department will endanger the country by hurting border security and cybersecurity efforts.
“There’s always a threat,” she told reporters. “We’re going to do everything we can to minimize that risk. But the sequester makes it awfully, awfully tough.”
In addition to fewer agents on the border, she said she likely would have to cut the number of detention beds to hold illegal immigrants.
But Mr. Coburn, in a letter to Ms. Napolitano sent Monday, argued that she has flexibility to decide which cuts go into effect and said her department is poised to carry over $9 billion in unspent money at the end of this year — “raising the question of why we would not start by reclaiming these funds.”