Department of Transportation warns air traffic controllers must be cut in one week

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(CNN) – The Department of Transportation will have no choice but to cut staffing of air traffic controllers if the upcoming forced spending cuts take effect, the agency’s boss said Sunday, defending against allegations that the warnings are merely bluster to help the Obama administration force a deal with congressional Republicans.

As part of the upcoming forced cuts totaling $85 billion, the Federal Aviation Administration will be required to slash $600 million from its budget, amounting to 4% of its total expenditures. Appearing at the White House on Friday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned those cuts would result in major delays at American airports.

Pressed by CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley on Sunday why such a small amount of the FAA’s total budget would result in delayed flights, LaHood explained that air traffic controllers consumed a substantial part of his agency’s resources.

“The largest number of employees at DOT is at FAA, of which the largest number are FAA controllers,” LaHood said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“We’re going to try and cut as much as we possibly can out of contracts and other things that we do,” he continued. “But in the end, there has to be some kind of furlough of air traffic controllers, and that will also begin to curtail or eliminate the opportunity for them to guide planes in and out of airports.”

LaHood, who was a Republican congressman from Illinois before joining Obama’s administration, is the last member of the GOP in the Obama Cabinet. Asked why he was brought to the White House briefing room Friday to address reporters, he said: “I would describe my presence here with one word: Republican.”

Asked Sunday if he thought Republicans were solely to blame for the stalemate over the forced spending cuts, LaHood alleged that members of his party were unwilling to negotiate with the president.

“I’m a Republican,” he said. “My audience is trying to persuade my former colleagues that they need to come to the table with a proposal, which frankly they haven’t done. While the president has, the Republicans haven’t.”

One former colleague disagreed.

“Shame on Ray LaHood,” Sen. John McCain, also appearing on “State of the Union,” said with a laugh. McCain, R-Arizona, pointed to an op-ed in Sunday’s Washington Post by the journalist Bob Woodward pinning the origin of the forced spending cuts on the White House.