The White House on Wednesday backed a proposal to temporarily eliminate spending cuts disrupting U.S. air travel, while politicians in Washington scrambled to avoid blame as the effects of the cuts started to be felt around the country.
With Republicans and conservative commentators blaming President Barack Obama for using the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration to score political points, the White House said it supported Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's proposal to replace the reductions by claiming savings from the drawdown of war spending.
"We support this effort to allow both sides to find a longer-term solution that replaces the sequester permanently in a balanced way so we can stop these harmful cuts that are hurting our economy and middle-class families across the country," White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a briefing.
The administration would support the measure as a temporary measure even though it does not raise revenues, Carney said.
Congressional Republicans have rejected the proposal, saying counting war savings is an accounting gimmick, but complaints about the air traffic delays have thrust sequestration back into the spotlight.
Carney defended Reid's plan, saying the drawdown comes as a result of the administration policies ending the war in Iraq and withdrawing from Afghanistan and therefore should be considered savings.
Some Republican budget proposals have also drawn on war savings to pay for budget plans, he added.
At a hearing before Congress on Wednesday, lawmakers pressed the head of the Federal Aviation Administration over why his agency has needed to temporarily lay off 47,000 employees for up to 11 days through the end of the fiscal year on Sept 30.
"These cuts simply punish everyone rather than specifically target the great number of outdated, wasteful and duplicative functions being funded with our taxpayer dollars," Iowa Republican Tom Latham said. "In short, arbitrary, non-targeted, across-the-board cuts are no way to run a government."
Members of Congress are offering a measure that would allow the FAA to transfer funds between accounts to minimize disruptions to air travel.
The sequestration cuts are the legacy of Republican efforts to pressure the Obama administration spending cuts in exchange for raising the nation's debt limit. The White House and lawmakers agreed to hold up the threat of the reductions, which affect defense and non-defense spending equally, as incentive to reach a broader deficit-reduction deal that would replace the cuts with other savings.
When that deal never materialized, the cuts went into effect March 1. Although the administration broadly advertised the negative impact they would have, those effects were not evident right away, leading some to criticize the president for scare tactics.
Flight delays this week have revived the issue. White House spokesman Carney on Wednesday blamed Republicans for underestimating the negative impact of the spending reductions.
"Republicans in Congress made a political tactical decision to embrace the sequester," he said. Cuts proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan would bite even more deeply than those under the sequester, he added.
"We share the frustration and we warned about these very problems, and we think Congress ... ought to take action to do away with the sequester so that we don't suffer these consequences," he said.
However, some Republican conservatives expressed continued support for the sequestration cuts on Wednesday, saying that they were long overdue.
"I don't understand this fascination with the Democrats right now with the sequester, and frankly some Republicans as well," Republican Representative Raul Labrador said.
The sequester marks "the first time we've saved money in Washington, D.C." and that the conversation should move onto how to balance the budget in the next 10 years, he said.