Cuts mean 'perfect storm' of airport delays: White House

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The Obama administration warned on Monday of a "perfect storm" of airport delays and less secure US borders when huge spending cuts hit this week, but a top Republican slammed White House "scare" tactics.

Political acrimony escalated another notch ahead of US$85 billion (S$105.3 billion) of cuts, known as the sequester, due to slam the government on March 1, but there was no sign of any effort by Democrats or Republicans to break the impasse.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned of the consequences of the cuts, as she became the latest cabinet official enrolled in a countrywide White House media blitz intended to pile blame on Republicans.

"At the major international airports, we will be limited in accepting new international flights, and average wait times to clear customs will increase by as much as 50 per cent," Ms Napolitano said.

"At our busiest airports ... peak wait times, which can reach over two hours, could easily grow to four hours or more," Ms Napolitano said, warning that budget cuts would hit security and customs officers at major hubs.

"You really have a perfect storm in terms of the ability to move around the country," she said, adding that waits at the south-west US land border could be five hours, and delays for cargo at American ports could last five days.

Ms Napolitano also said that reduced overtime, furloughs and hiring freezes for border agents would make the US border less secure and make it harder to stop illegal immigration.

While stopping short of saying that that the United States would be more prone to terror attacks, she said sequestration would make the work of securing the country "awfully, awfully tough." The idea for the automatic, arbitrary budget cuts emerged as a way to ease a previous showdown between Mr Obama and Republicans in Congress.

The massive reductions to the military and domestic budget were supposed to be so severe that both sides would be forced into a deal to cut the deficit.

But such is Washington's dysfunction, no agreement has been reached.

Mr Obama on Monday hit out at the polarised political atmosphere in the US capital, telling his foes at some point they had to agree to govern.

The president is calling on congressional Republicans to agree to stave off the cuts by closing tax loopholes that benefit the rich and corporations to raise new revenues, along with a programme of targeted spending cuts.

"We can't just cut our way to prosperity. Cutting alone is not an economic policy," Mr Obama told Democratic and Republican governors at the White House.

Many Republicans agree that the sequester is a bad way to trim the budget and reduce the deficit but they argue that Mr Obama is not serious about reining in spending.

Mr Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, who is a possible 2016 presidential candidate, emerged from the meeting with Mr Obama and issued a searing attack on the president's handling of the sequester.

"There is a responsible way to cut less than three per cent of the federal budget," Mr Jindal told reporters. "I think it is time for the president to show leadership. This administration has an insatiable appetite for new revenues.

"Enough is enough. The president needs to stop campaigning, stop trying to scare the American people." The cuts will slash defence spending by at least US$55 billion and non-defence discretionary spending by US$27 billion this year.

The Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington estimates that one million jobs could be lost.

The Congressional Budget Office predicts growth, already down by 0.1 per cent last quarter, could slip 0.7 per cent as government departments and related businesses stagger under the sequester's impact.