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Sequestration cuts could cause long delays for flights, administration says

The White House warned yesterday that hundreds of air traffic control towers could be closed and travelers could expect lengthy flight delays beginning in April in the administration’s latest bid to raise public alarm over the mandatory spending cuts set to kick in next week.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood vowed that airline security would not be compromised, but he emphasized that the Federal Aviation Administration would have no alternative but to furlough thousands of employees as it seeks to slash $600 million.

LaHood’s surprise appearance in the White House briefing room aimed to put a spotlight on the real-world consequences of the political standoff over the across-the-board spending cuts, known as the sequester, that will take effect Friday.

Even as LaHood painted a dire picture, a Pew Research Center/USA Today poll released Thursday shows that most Americans have heard little to nothing about the potential cuts. Only 27 percent said they had heard “a lot” about them.

The White House has sought to change that this week with a public relations campaign that included President Obama’s appearance Tuesday with emergency medical workers and an announcement by the Pentagon that it would furlough up to 800,000 civilian employees one day a week.

But it was the specter of widespread travel delays – up to 90 minutes during peak flight periods – that the White House hoped would rally public opinion and put pressure on Republican lawmakers.

“Your phones are going to start ringing off the hook when these people are delayed at airports,” said LaHood, a former GOP congressman from Illinois. “Nobody likes a delay. Nobody likes waiting in line.”

The sequester was put into motion by the August 2011 debt-ceiling deal, and there have been few signs of progress in negotiations to avert them. Obama has proposed a mix of budget cuts and new revenue through closing corporate loopholes, but Republicans have said they will not raise taxes and instead have pushed to cut federal health spending.

The president said yesterday that the impact of the budget cuts would slow growth in an already soft economy.

“It also means that we are not going to be driving down unemployment as quickly as we should,” Obama said. He added that his fellow world leaders understand that drastic budget cuts are the “wrong prescription” for the U.S. economy.

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