White House tours, vaccinations, criminal releases: Administration seeing pushback on budget cut claims

Published: Wednesday, March 6 2013 3:05 p.m. MST

President Barack Obama speaks to reporters in the White House briefing room in Washington, Friday, March 1, 2013, following his meeting with congressional leaders regarding the automatic spending cuts.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — The White House spent much of February warning about the dire consequences of automatic budget cuts, and as the cuts went into effect Friday and those consequences failed to materialize, questions are being raised about the administration's handling of the sequestration issue.

"President Barack Obama hopes to spark a pitchfork revolt against Republicans over sequester-induced budget cuts — but many Democrats fret that he's undermined the effort with an early strategy marred by hype, poor planning and muddled messaging," Politico reported Wednesday.

The automatic budget cuts, set to begin on March 1 and signed into law by Obama in August 2011, planned for $1.2 trillion in budget cuts spread over nine years and equally divided between domestic and defense spending. In 2013, around $85 billion in cuts are set to go into effect.

On Feb. 19, prior to the sequestration deadline, Obama blamed Congress for the sequestration, and said that the cuts would jeopardize the country's military readiness and "eviscerate" job-creating investments in education, energy and medical research:

"Emergency responders … (and) their ability to help communities respond to and recover from disasters will be degraded," Obama said. "Border Patrol agents will see their hours reduced. FBI agents will be furloughed. Federal prosecutors will have to close cases and let criminals go. Air traffic controllers and airport security will see cutbacks, which means more delays at airports across the country. Thousands of teachers and educators will be laid off. Tens of thousands of parents will have to scramble to find childcare for their kids. Hundreds of thousands of Americans will lose access to primary care and preventative care like flu vaccinations and cancer screenings."

"I think they probably went over the top in terms of saying that the consequences were going to be horrible, especially because it's happened and the lines in the airport aren't long, the world hasn't changed overnight," former Penn. Gov. Ed Rendell told Politico. "Some of this is going to kick in eventually — government workers will be furloughed, contractors will lose their jobs, people will start feeling this for sure — but it will take some time ... and it probably wasn't the best strategic path for the White House to follow."

Obama toned down some of his warnings as the budget cuts began, saying the budget cuts were "dumb," but were "not going to be an apocalypse." However, in the days following the sequestration deadline, media reports and Washington leaders have begun to dig into the claims made by the White House, and Obama.

A Politico story published Wednesday cited six White House claims regarding the sequester that "fell flat," including that Capitol Hill janitors will not get as much pay, that prosecutors will "let criminals go," that programs like Meals on Wheels will serve 4 million fewer meals to seniors, that teachers are getting pink slips due to sequestration, and that 70,000 children would lose access to Head Start.

During a Tuesday hearing on Capitol Hill, Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., took Tom Frieden, Director of the Centers for Disease Control, to task for a White House claim that sequestration would cut vaccinations to children by 2,050 in Maryland. Harris pointed out that the president's budget made $58 million in cuts to the same program the sequester cut by $30 million.

"So actually, the president cut twice as much in his budget. Can I assume that the president's proposed cut would've reduced funding to 4,100 children in Maryland?" Harris asked. "Is it your testimony that under the president's proposed cut of $58 million in his budget to the 317 program, you could have avoided cuts to vaccines to children in Maryland?"

"We believe that we could've maintained vaccination levels, yes," Frieden said.

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