Obama to meet Republicans to head off budget cuts

President Obama speaks at a Virginia shipyard. Picture: Reuters
President Obama speaks at a Virginia shipyard. Picture: Reuters
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A GLIMMER of hope has ­appeared in efforts to resolve the latest financial stand-off ­between President Barack Obama and congressional leaders over a looming $85 billion (£56bn) in US federal budget cuts known in Washington ­jargon as the ­sequester.

After days of inaction, Mr Obama announced yesterday that he would sit down with senior Republicans to discuss the crisis tomorrow morning, the first day of the cutbacks that analysts have warned will cost jobs and affect everything from defence to air travel and economic growth.

But while he still hopes to persuade a divided Congress to approve his deficit reduction plan that would include structured budget cuts and the raising of certain taxes, there remains little confidence of a deal.

“If the president is serious about stopping the sequester, why did he schedule a meeting for Friday when the sequester hits at midnight on Thursday?” asked a Republican congressional aide, speaking anonymously.

“Either someone needs to buy the White House a calendar, or this is just a belated farce. They ought to at least pretend to try.”

The viewpoint reflects an increasingly belligerent attitude from the Republican Party hierarchy, which is digging in its heels over the part of Mr Obama’s plan that would close tax loopholes for the wealthiest Americans.

It wants a resolution to the nation’s spiralling debt problems based solely on government spending cuts and has accused Mr Obama of “political posturing” over dire warnings from the White House about the effects of the sequester on the general population.

Ray LaHood, the administration’s transport secretary, warned yesterday that up to 100 air traffic control towers could be forced to close and safety in the air could be compromised by the slashing of $600 million from the Federal Aviation ­Authority budget.

Meanwhile, almost half of the cuts, $40bn, could fall on the US military, creating a fiery baptism for the new secretary of defence Chuck Hagel, who was sworn into office in a ceremony at Pentagon yesterday.

The procurement of the new F-35 strike aircraft for the air force is already running over budget, while in Virginia on Tuesday, Mr Obama appeared at a shipyard that services US Navy vessels to claim that the crisis might affect the nation’s safety.

“The threat of these cuts has already forced the navy to cancel the deployment, or delay the repair of certain aircraft carriers. One that’s currently being built might not get finished,” he said.

“It will weaken our military readiness. And it will weaken the basic services that the American people depend on every single day.”

John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives who will join Senate minority leader Mitch ­McConnell and the congressional Democratic leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi in ­tomorrow’s White House talks, accused the president of scare tactics.

“He is using our military men and women as a prop in yet another campaign rally to support his tax hikes,” Mr Boehner said. “I don’t think the president’s focused on trying to find a solution to the sequester.”

Experts have warned that few areas of public life in the US will remain unaffected by the budget cuts, which had been due to kick in automatically earlier this year but which were postponed by the fiscal cliff compromise in January that sought to tackle the $16.6 trillion national deficit.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has released from custody several hundred suspected illegal immigrants it says it can no longer afford to detain while other departments funded by federal dollars are preparing to slash their spending.

National parks would close to tourists, mental health patients would go untreated, there would be long queues at airports and the unemployed would lose some welfare benefits.