Republicans and Democrats brace – and blame – ahead of spending cuts

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(CNN) – Optimism for a last-minute deal averting massive across-the-board spending cuts was scarce Sunday, leaving lawmakers and governors squabbling over who will be to blame for the “meat cleaver” budget slashing set to take effect on March 1.

Congress returns to work Monday after a weeklong break, and while Senate Democrats plan to vote on a measure that would replace the cuts for one year, no feasible compromise plan appears in the works that would gain congressional approval before Friday.

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“I won’t put all the blame on the president of the United States, but the president leads. The president should be calling us over somewhere, Camp David, the White House, somewhere, and sitting down and trying to avert these cuts,” Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.

Democrats, predictably, pinned the blame elsewhere.

“Unless the Republicans are willing to compromise and do a balanced approach, I think it will kick in,” Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a Democrat, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Even the effects of the cuts, known in Washington parlance as the “sequester,” were in question, with Democrats and administration officials adamant they would spell disaster for education and transportation programs. While a large portion of the cuts will affect defense spending, there will also be a forced reduction of civilian program budgets, though neither side seems to agree on just how harsh those cuts will feel.

As part of the forced cuts, which total $85 billion, the Federal Aviation Administration will be required to slash $600 million from its budget. 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 those cuts must result in delayed flights, LaHood explained that air traffic controllers consumed a substantial part of his agency’s resources.

“We’re going to try and cut as much as we possibly can out of contracts and other things that we do,” he said. “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.”

Another Cabinet official, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, warned Sunday that thousands of schoolteachers could lose their jobs if the cuts take effect, saying on CBS there are “literally teachers now who are getting pink slips, who are getting notices they can’t come back this fall.”

“We don’t have any ability with dumb cuts like this to figure out what the right thing to do is. It just means that a lot more children will not get the kinds of services and opportunities they need,” Duncan said.

Those claims were met with skepticism from some Republicans, one of whom alleged Obama and his allies were “absolutely” exaggerating the impact of the cuts.

“The American people, we see all these claims about what a tragedy it’s going to be,” Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said on “Fox News Sunday,” pointing to statements from LaHood and Homeland Security boss Janet Napolitano.

“They have plenty of flexibility in terms of discretion on how they spend money,” Coburn said. “There are easy ways to cut this money that the American people will never feel. What you hear is an outrage because nobody wants to cut spending.”

Another Republican, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, called the dire warnings from Obama administration officials merely “great political theater about how cutting less than 3% of the federal budget can cause all these awful consequences.”

‘Here is [Obama’s] chance to say, ‘Here is how we can do it better.’ The reality is the federal budget, even after the cuts, will be larger than last year’s budget,” Jindal said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Other governors, both Democratic and Republican, sounded resigned to the reality of the budget cuts taking effect Friday. The state executives are gathered in Washington for the winter meeting of the National Governors Association, and will hear from Obama at a dinner Sunday evening.

“These are job-killing cuts, and we have to find a way to avoid them,” Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

His neighbor, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, also said some kind of fix was necessary to avoid the huge defense budget cuts that would affect his state in particular.

We’ve got to get the job done. It’s been 18 months. The sequester was put in place to be a hammer, not a policy, and now here we are just a week away from getting it done,” McDonnell said.

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