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MacDill AirFest casualty as sequester deal eludes leaders

DAVID ESPO The Associated Press
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 09:54 PM

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WASHINGTON -

Gridlocked once more, President Barack Obama and Republican congressional leaders refused to budge in their budget standoff Friday as $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts bore down on individual Americans and the nation's still-recovering economy.

"None of this is necessary," the president said after a fruitless White House meeting that portended a long standoff.

Obama formally enacted the reductions a few hours before the midnight deadline required by law. Their effect was felt locally minutes later as Air Force officials canceled AirFest 2013 at MacDill Air Force Base.

The popular two-day event showcasing the machines and personnel of the flying service was scheduled for April 6-7. The event routinely draws up to 100,000 people to the area.

Terry Montrose, a spokesman for the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill, said the automatic budget cuts left the military no choice.

"We waited until very last minute," Montrose said. "We really wanted this to happen."

Asked whether the cancellation could be reversed if there were a quick political resolution to the sequestration stalemate, Montrose said he didn't think so.

"Canceled is canceled, not postponed," Montrose said.

In Washington, the president met with top lawmakers for less than an hour at the White House, then sought repeatedly to fix the blame on Republicans for the broad spending reductions and any damage that they inflict.

"They've allowed these cuts to happen because they refuse to budge on closing a single wasteful loophole to help reduce the deficit," he said, renewing his demand for a comprehensive deficit-cutting deal that includes higher taxes.

Republicans said they wanted deficit cuts, too, but not tax increases.

"The president got his tax hikes on Jan. 1," House Speaker John Boehner said, a reference to a $600 billion increase on higher wage earners that cleared Congress on the first day of the year. Now, he said, it is time take on "the spending problem here in Washington."

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was equally emphatic. "I will not be part of any back-room deal, and I will absolutely not agree to increase taxes," he vowed in a written statement.

At the same time they clashed, Obama and Republicans appeared determined to contain their disagreement.

Boehner said the House will pass legislation next week to extend routine funding for government agencies beyond the current March 27 expiration. "I'm hopeful that we won't have to deal with the threat of a government shutdown while we're dealing with the sequester at the same time," he said, referring to the new cuts by their Washington-speak name.

Obama said he, too, wanted to keep the two issues separate.

The Pentagon will absorb half of the $85 billion required to be sliced between now and the end of the budget year on Sept. 30, exposing civilian workers to furloughs and defense contractors to possible cancellations.

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott and other governors whose states will be deeply affected by budget cuts.

Carter stated that 31,000 civilian employees could be furloughed up to 22 days in Florida. The department has estimated the furloughs would result in a payroll reduction of $185 million to the Florida employees.

Scott said that neither the president nor members of Congress should get paid until they solve the problem.

"In Washington they are playing politics; they are playing politics with families' lives and jobs in our state," the Republican governor said.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, only a few days on the job, said: "We will continue to ensure America's security" despite the challenge posed by an "unnecessary budget crisis."

The administration also has warned of long lines at airports as security personnel are furloughed, of teacher layoffs in some classrooms and adverse effects on maintenance at the nation's parks.

After days of dire warnings by administration officials, the president said the effects of the cuts would be felt only gradually.

"The longer these cuts remain in place, the greater the damage to our economy — a slow grind that will intensify with each passing day," he said. Much of the budget savings will come through unpaid furloughs for government workers, and those won't begin taking effect until next month.

It isn't clear how long they will last.

Of particular concern to lawmakers in both parties is a lack of flexibility in the allocation of cuts due to take effect over the next few months. That problem will ease beginning with the new budget year on Oct. 1, when Congress and the White House will be able to negotiate changes in the way the reductions are made.

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