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Transportation Secretary Warns Sequestration Would Disrupt Air Travel

February 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
With sequestration due to take effect in a week, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned that automatic spending cuts would disrupt air travel and cause a myriad of problems. Lisa Rein of the Washington Post joins Ray Suarez to discuss about what's reality, what's hype, and the Republican response to the imposing cuts.
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RAY SUAREZ: With just a week left before automatic spending cuts are set to begin, the Obama administration stepped up pressure on Republicans in Congress today.

The latest warnings came over the potential impact that furloughs would have on air travel, starting in April. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said travelers could face new delays of 90 minutes at major airports in Chicago, New York and San Francisco. More than 100 air control towers at smaller airports could be closed, LaHood said. Airlines likely would cancel flights. And Congress, he said, would hear of the fallout.

SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION RAY LAHOOD: It’s not only the impact on the passengers. It’s the impact that it has on airports, control towers, people who work there, airports.

And their phones are going to start ringing. Why does this have to happen? Nobody likes a delay. Nobody likes waiting in line. None of us do. If we can’t get our hamburger within five minutes, if we can’t get on the plane within 30, 40, 50 minutes after going through, you know what happens. They start calling their member of Congress.

RAY SUAREZ: More now on these latest warnings, the Republican response and the timing of these possible cuts.

Lisa Rein is following this for The Washington Post, and she joins me now.

Lisa, in recent days, senior members of the Obama administration have laid out in exacting detail all the terrible consequences if the sequester goes through, while Republicans, in many cases, have said it might not be that bad. From your reporting, can you tell who’s working closer to the truth?

LISA REIN, The Washington Post: Well, it is hard to tell, but this is really in part a political game because it really does look like these $85 billion dollars in spending cuts will begin to take effect next Friday.

It doesn’t look as if Congress, as either side in Congress has a real interest in resolving this issue. And the Obama administration has over the past I’m going to say about two weeks has stepped up the pressure on Republicans to say to the public, OK, dire consequences will result if these cuts take effect.

That’s in part because the agencies have to make the cuts across-the-board, and they can’t really make them without furloughs. Now, air traffic is just one area of the government that would — that the White House says would be impacted. You have got national parks that are going to delay openings because they have to. They can’t do seasonal hiring, and seasonal hiring are the folks who really drive parks.

Poultry inspections would be compromised. Prosecutions in federal courts, you know, would be affected, the whole range of things. Now, for the Obama folks, in many ways, it’s in their interest to blame Republicans for these cuts because polls have shown that the Republicans would take the blame.

For Republicans, many, many constituents in these Republican districts want to cut government spending. And their members feel that this is really the only way to start doing it.

RAY SUAREZ: These are being portrayed as sudden and sizable cuts. Where are they going to be seen first? Sec. LaHood was talking about April for some of these air traffic effects. What will we see and how soon after Mar. 1st?

LISA REIN: Well, it’s hard to say.

There’s no question that no one is going to be furloughed next Friday. And the cuts will really not be visible for several weeks, if that. It’s also possible that Congress will reach a deal several weeks into these cuts to stop them and nothing really noticeable, you know, would happen to government services.

So they will be gradual. And federal agencies have the ability to push off some of the cuts. But what they are saying is that they need to start furloughing people in about April. The Defense — the Pentagon said this week that it was issuing furlough notices to about 800,000 civilian employees to prepare to be furloughed.

So, in the case of the Pentagon, you know, that means that destroyers, various aircraft carriers will not deploy to places like the Persian Gulf and other theaters. And that’s a big effect on local economies, in areas like Hampton Roads, Va., San Diego. And it’s an effect that will be clearly felt on contractors who rely on Navy contracts for shipbuilding.

So I think the effects will be gradual. No one can really tell when the agencies will sort of pull the plug. And, as I said, the cuts nay not take effect for that long.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you said at the outset that there is a political dimension to this. And, of course, as we enter the final week, there most certainly is. What is the public telling opinion researchers about who they will hold responsible if Friday comes and goes without a deal?

LISA REIN: Well, I think part of the problem is that many Americans don’t really understand what sequestration is.

It’s become this obsession in Washington, but many people are only just now beginning to become aware of it. But the recent — a recent poll by the Pew center for research said that many more Republicans would be held responsible than would the Obama administration. On the other hand, as I said earlier, Republicans have been putting pressure on the administration for two years, three years now to get — to make deep spending cuts to the federal government which they see as excessive and in need of cutting and as causing huge deficit problems.

And part of the problem is, if you have automatic spending cuts, which is what the sequestration would do, across all arms of the government, virtually, then no one really needs to take responsible for having authorized specific cuts to specific agencies. And that’s in part why the cuts are, oddly enough, politically more palatable than if Republicans or Democrats were to say, OK, we suggest that you cut this agency or that agency.

RAY SUAREZ: Lisa Rein of The Washington Post, thanks for joining us.

LISA REIN: Thank you.