President Barack Obama on Monday called on the nation’s governors to lobby their respective congressional delegations to prevent the looming sequestration cuts set to kick in Friday.
At the annual gathering of the National Governors Association, Obama urged the bipartisan group of state executives to review the state-by-state reports issued by the White House Sunday outlining how the more than $1 trillion in across-the-board cuts would affect their constituents. Obama also addressed state and federal partnerships in infrastructure and education.
“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, eliminate good jobs, and leave a lot of folks who are already pretty thinly stretched scrambling to figure out what to do,” Obama told the group. “So, while you are in town, I hope that you speak with your congressional delegation and remind them in no uncertain terms exactly what is at stake and exactly who is at risk. … These cuts do not have to happen. Congress can turn them off anytime with just a little bit of compromise.”
Though the Senate is set to vote on competing sequester replacement plans this week, neither is likely to become law before the end of the week. Meanwhile, Democrats and the White House hope to force a solution by the March 27 deadline to keep the government funded by hammering home a message that highlights the damaging cuts at the department and state levels.
To this end, Obama warned governors that while the effects of the sequester on the economy might not be felt immediately, they certainly are real.
“Now, these impacts will not all be felt on day one. But rest assured, the uncertainty is already having an effect. Companies are preparing layoff notices. Families are preparing to cut back on expenses. And the longer these cuts are in place, the bigger the impact will become,” Obama warned.
Senate Democrats are set to introduce a $110 billion bill that would replace this year’s sequester cuts with a mix of revenue increases and spending cuts, including targeting direct payments to American farmers.
Over the long term, Obama suggested Democrats need to be open to “modest” entitlement reform, but Democrats have not yet discussed a larger package to replace the entirety of the scheduled cuts, instead focusing on turning off the sequester for a year.
Obama will travel to Virginia Tuesday to discuss the impacts of the cuts with regular citizens in an attempt to increase pressure inside the Beltway to act. So far, Republicans seem willing to accept the cuts rather than agree to closing tax loopholes or otherwise raising taxes.
The president also addressed two major points of his State of the Union speech from earlier this month: transportation and education. Obama announced that he would attempt to accelerate action on his “Fix It First” initiative to modernize current transportation and communication networks. He plans to target infrastructure upgrades based on region. For example, he said he wants to help the Northeast move more quickly to build high-speed rail service, while efforts in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana would concentrate on oil and gas production.
Obama argued that improving roads, bridges and other critical infrastructure would “save us money in the long term.” And he quoted Wyoming GOP Gov. Matt Mead as saying that failing to maintain roads “is not a plan for being fiscally responsible.”
On education, the president continued his push for early childhood education as a way to ensure better results for students in elementary schools and high schools later on in life.
In addition to Obama’s remarks, the White House communications office kept up its full-court press of warnings about the sequester on Monday when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano attended the daily press briefing. Like Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last week, she warned again of huge delays at airports and ports as well as border security and other areas because of the impact of sequester on her agency.
She warned that delays to get through customs at major international airports such as JFK and LAX could be as long as four hours because of furloughs for border and customs employees, and that goods traveling through ports could be held up for five days. Napolitano said those delays would hurt the economy and jobs.
“You really have a perfect storm in terms of the ability to move around the country,” she said. The impacts will phase in “like a rolling ball.”
She denied a charge from Louisiana’s GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal that the president was scaring the country, saying the impacts were real.
“I don’t think we can maintain the same level of security at all places around the country. … People don’t want to be less safe. They don’t want to be less secure.”
She did say, however, that security procedures at airports and ports would not change, which is why security lines would get much longer.
She said she had no options to avoid the impacts unless Congress acts.
For his part, Press Secretary Jay Carney sidestepped a question about whether the president would support a GOP effort to give the administration the flexibility to make the cuts in a smarter way.
He said that while flexibility might help on the margins, it would be “impossible” to “basically prevent all the bad things from happening but somehow allow cuts to come in places that nobody will notice.”
Still, he stopped short of saying the president wouldn’t sign such a bill.
Carney again made the argument that the GOP so far has been choosing to protect tax breaks for hedge funds, oil companies and corporate jets rather than avert the sequester.
That led to snarky tweets from GOP leadership aides.
“Carney doing that thing again where he forgets they just got higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Need to put a sticky note up there,” tweeted Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck. Buck was referring to the New Year’s Day deal to prevent tax hikes on all Americans and delay the sequester for two months.
GOP aides also noted that several of the tax policies Carney kept touting, including limiting tax deductions for the wealthy, aren’t in the Senate Democrats’ sequester alternative.