Updated: 02/25/2013 09:03 | By Agence France-Presse

As massive cuts loom, US lawmakers point fingers

Five days before massive spending cuts are due to strike, US lawmakers appeared as divided as ever, with President Barack Obama's Democrats and rival Republicans trading blame for the impasse.

Nearly everyone agrees the $85 billion in automatic cuts -- known as the "sequester" -- will deal a painful blow to an already lagging economy, but a compromise deal to rein in the country's debt appears as elusive as ever.

The automatic March 1 cuts, agreed to during the bare-knuckled budget talks of 2011, were intended as a poison pill to force agreement on a more palatable alternative, but on Sunday there was still no sign of a breakthrough.

"It's going into effect because the Republicans are choosing for it to go into effect," senior White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer told reporters during a conference call on Sunday.

"With a little bit of compromise and common sense, this could be resolved."

The White House released a state-by-state breakdown of the impact of the cuts, including the lay-offs of thousands of teachers, salary cuts for civilian defense employees, cuts in medical research, scaled back food inspections and an increase in travel delays at major airports.

The sharp decline in public spending will also further hobble the lagging economic recovery, with the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimating that the sequester will shave 0.6 percent off 2013 growth.

The Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank, estimated that one million fewer jobs will be created if the sequester goes through.

White House economist Jason Furman said Obama and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would continue to push for a deal with a "balanced approach" that could hurdle the latest crisis and buy time for a lasting agreement.

Republican Senator John McCain, meanwhile, blamed the president and his fellow Democrats for failing to hold serious talks on a compromise.

"I won't put all the blame on the president of the United States," he said, but "the president should be calling us over somewhere, Camp David, the White House, somewhere, and sitting down and trying to avert these cuts."

Republicans who favor a vastly smaller government have welcomed the cuts in principle but demanded more flexibility and bristled over the fact that the sequester -- as designed -- would hit defense especially hard.

The Pentagon employs some 800,000 civilians who could be hit by furloughs and spends tens of billions of dollars on civilian contractors.

"There's a big difference from a sailor on the (USS) Eisenhower (aircraft carrier) out in the Mediterranean and the travel coordinator at the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). You can't treat them the same," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Republican, told ABC television's "This Week."

"We have intelligence operations that could get slowed down or stopped. That's a problem."

Senate Democrats will debate a plan Monday to close tax loopholes that benefit the wealthy as a way of reducing the deficit, but Republicans who reluctantly swallowed a tax hike for top earners during the "fiscal cliff" showdown over New Year's are opposed to raising any new revenues.

Some Republicans have come to see the sequester as the only way to get any spending cuts past the president, saying Obama's campaign rhetoric about a "balanced approach" to the budget has only meant more taxing and spending.

"The crisis is made up. It's been created," Republican Senator Tom Coburn told the "Fox News Sunday" program, when asked about the sequester.

"I didn't support the sequester because that's a stupid way to cut spending and I didn't support increasing the debt limit because there is no such thing as the debt limit in this country, because we always raise it," he said.

"But the fact is, is we have tons, hundreds of billions of dollars, of fat and waste and excess in the federal government. And we ought to be about cutting some of it out."

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