By Aamer Madhani
WASHINGTON - With the White House and GOP lawmakers at loggerheads over how to avert billions of dollars in automatic defense and domestic spending cuts set to be triggered next week, the rhetoric is heating up.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former GOP congressman from Illinois, said on Friday that the sequester will lead to massive interruptions in the U.S. air traffic system. Speaking to reporters at the White House on Friday, LaHood stated bluntly that the White House had sent him out to deliver a blunt message to his former Republican colleagues.
"I think Republicans need to step up here," LaHood said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., released a letter on Friday in which he took aim at the White House's seriousness on the pending cuts.
In the letter to Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director Jeffrey Zients, Coburn questioned the appropriateness of moving forward with the Obama administration's "Connecting Your Community" program, which includes a plan to dispatch agency officials to meet with representatives of 100 cities to discuss how federal programs can assist municipalities on projects.
"Much is being made about the possible impact of sequestration on government programs for the poor and middle class, food safety and the defense of our nation," Coburn wrote. "It is somewhat surprising, therefore, for the White House to be headlining a 100 city government spending tour, transporting representatives from multiple departments and various agencies around the country to promote federal largess."
The first session was held on Feb. 14 in Beaverton, Ore. Officials from the EPA and the White House were to participate, according to the agenda. Coburn, who has earned the moniker of Dr. No during his time in Senate, called on Zients to cancel the rest of the tour.
Obama has demanded a "balanced plan" that includes higher tax revenue and some spending cuts, while GOP lawmakers have insisted that tax increases are a non-starter.
Asked on Friday about Coburn's call to cancel the tour, White House press secretary Jay Carney did not have an immediate response but said the program represented a "drop in the bucket" compared with the enormous cuts in domestic and defense spending that are set to go into effect in the matter of days.
"You can find an individual thing and say this should be cut - and maybe it should be, whatever it is," Carney said. "But it represents a drop in the bucket to an $85 billion cut - a 13% cut to our defense budget, a 9% cut to our non-defense discretionary budget this year."