WASHINGTON (AP) — The automatic budget cuts set to take hold this week were roundly condemned Sunday as governors, lawmakers and administration officials hoped for a deal to stave off the $85 billion reduction in government services.
But as leaders rushed past each other to decry the potentially devastating cuts, they also criticized their counterparts for their roles in introducing, implementing and obstructing the budget mechanism that could affect everything from commercial flights to classrooms to meat inspections. The GOP's leading line of criticism hinged on blaming Obama's aides for introducing the budget trigger in the first place, while the administration's allies were determined to illustrate the consequences of the cuts as the product of Republican stubbornness.
Former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour, aware the political outcome may be predicated on who is to blame, half-jokingly said Sunday: "Well, if it was a bad idea, it was the president's idea."
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said there was little hope to dodge the cuts "unless the Republicans are willing to compromise and do a balanced approach."
No so fast, Republicans interjected.
"I think the American people are tired of the blame game," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.
Yet just a moment before, she was blaming Obama for putting the country on the brink of massive spending cuts that were initially designed to be so unacceptable that Congress would strike a grand bargain to avoid them.
Obama nodded to the squabble during his weekly radio and Internet address.
"Unfortunately, it appears that Republicans in Congress have decided that instead of compromising — instead of asking anything of the wealthiest Americans — they would rather let these cuts fall squarely on the middle class," Obama said on Saturday, in his last weekly address before the deadline but unlikely to be his final word on the subject.
"We just need Republicans in Washington to come around," Obama added. "Because we need their help to finish the job of reducing our deficit in a smart way that doesn't hurt our economy or our people."
With Friday's deadline nearing, few in the nation's capital were optimistic that a realistic alternative could be found and all sought to cast the political process itself as the culprit. If Congress does not step in, a top-to-bottom series of cuts will be spread across domestic and defense agencies in a way that would fundamentally change how government serves its people.
And, yes, those cuts will hurt. The cuts would slash from domestic and defense spending alike, leading to furloughs for hundreds of thousands of government workers and contractors.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the cuts would harm the readiness of U.S. fighting forces. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said travelers could see delayed flights. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said 70,000 fewer children from low-income families would have access to Head Start programs. And furloughed meat inspectors could leave plants idled.
In Virginia, for instance, 90,000 Defense Department civilian employees could be furloughed, including nurses at Army hospitals, said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. He also said ship-repair contractors could lay off 300 of their 450 employees.
"There is no reason that this has to happen. We just need to find a balanced approach," Kaine said.
Some governors said the impasse was just the latest crisis in Washington that is keeping businesses from hiring and undermining the ability of state leaders to develop their own spending plans.
"It's senseless and it doesn't need to happen," said Gov. Martin O'Malley, D-Md., during the annual meeting of the National Governors Association this weekend.
"And it's a damn shame, because we've actually had the fastest rate of jobs recovery of any state in our region. And 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," said O'Malley.
The budget cuts were all but certain to come up when Obama dines with the governors Sunday evening at the White House. But time to reach a deal is running out and hope is waning.
Suggestions intended to instill a spirit of compromise included bringing all sides to the bargaining table, where they could act like "adults," a presidential summit at Camp David and even a field trip to watch "Lincoln." Yet none of those options was on the books.
Connecticut's Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy said it is past time for both sides to sit down to help dodge cuts that will hurt all states' budgets.
"Come to the table, everyone. Everybody. Let's work this thing out. Let's be adults," Malloy said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called those defense cuts "unconscionable" and urged Obama to call lawmakers to the White House or the presidential retreat of Camp David for a last-minute budget summit.
"I won't put all the blame all on the president of the United States. But the president leads. The president should be calling us over somewhere — Camp David, the White House, somewhere — and us sitting down and trying to avert these cuts," McCain said.
LaHood, who served as a Republican representing Illinois in the U.S. House, urged his colleagues to watch Steven Spielberg's film about President Abraham Lincoln's political skills.
"Everybody around here ought to go take a look at the 'Lincoln' movie, where they did very hard things by working together, talking together and compromising," said LaHood. "That's what's needed here."
LaHood and Duncan were the only of representatives from the administration to appear on Sunday shows.
Barbour, Malloy and McCain appeared on CNN's "State of the Union." McCaskill was interviewed on "Fox News Sunday." Ayotte, Duncan and Kaine spoke with CBS' "Face the Nation." LaHood appeared on both CNN and NBC. No one from the White House was scheduled to appear.
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