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White House steps up campaign to avoid spending cuts

U.S. President Barack Obama discusses the automatic budget cuts scheduled to take effect next week, while in the South Court Auditorium in t
U.S. President Barack Obama discusses the automatic budget cuts scheduled to take effect next week, while in the South Court Auditorium in t

By Mark Felsenthal and David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House escalated a campaign on Monday to convince Americans dire consequences await if government spending cuts go ahead on March 1, warning of a slowdown in global trade, a stalled fight against cancer and Alzheimer's disease and compromised security at U.S. borders.

At the same time, prominent Republicans said President Barack Obama was overstating the potential damage of the $85 billion in government-wide cuts to frighten the public.

"There is a responsible way to cut less than 3 percent of the federal budget. It's time for the president to show leadership," Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal told reporters after a meeting between the president and governors. "The president needs to stop campaigning, stop trying to scare the American people."

Jindal's comments followed the president's plea for Republican and Democratic governors to press Congress to stop the cuts, telling them he was willing to compromise with Republican lawmakers.

Obama will meet leading Senate Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham on Tuesday to discuss immigration reform efforts, but a McCain aide said the talks could also delve into efforts to halt the cuts.

Graham is a member of Senate committees on appropriations and the federal budget. He and McCain both sit on the armed services panel. The McCain aide said the U.S. troop drawdown from Afghanistan could also be discussed on Tuesday.

But the president has given no sign that he would try to start negotiations or take steps to blunt the effect of the cuts. He bemoaned what he described as a confrontational atmosphere in Washington, where budget battles have provoked one near-crisis after another since the summer of 2011.

In recent weeks the White House has sought to highlight in stark terms the disruptions that would begin on Friday if federal programs are cut.

On Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned the cuts would increase delays at ports of entry into the United States for container cargo by "up to five days."

Average wait times at customs for travelers will increase "by as much as 50 percent," she added, with even longer delays at the busiest airports such as Newark, Los Angeles and New York's JFK where delays could double to "four hours or more."

"I'm not here to scare people, I'm here to inform," Napolitano said at a White House briefing. "Please don't yell at the customs officer or the (Transportation Security Administration) officer because the lines are long," she said. "The lines over the next few weeks are going to start to lengthen in some dramatic ways in parts of the country."

Also Monday, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told reporters that the $1.6 billion cutback would hit the 240-bed NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where doctors study rare diseases and conduct clinical trials to test new drugs for conditions ranging from cancer and AIDS to depression and genetic disorders.

The NIH also predicted that a lack of funding for hundreds of new grants could jeopardize as many as 20,000 research jobs across the United States and slow vital projects to fight cancer and Alzheimer's disease, develop a universal influenza vaccine and gain fresh insights into the activities of the human brain.

The administration began ratcheting up its warnings on Friday when Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood described cuts at airports that he said would cause domestic air travelers significant delays.

Over the weekend, the White House distributed state-by-state projections of lost jobs and cuts in education funding for poor children. These figures were widely reported on local news broadcasts.

HOW LONG WILL CUTS LAST?

The actual impact of the cuts will depend largely on how long they last.

Many of the projections are based on the likelihood that government employees will be furloughed - told to take unpaid days off - in order to meet the demands of the cuts.

But the furloughs won't occur for at least a month, or perhaps later, because federal rules require the government to give its employees 30-days notice.

Congress and the White House also could agree to stop or ease the cuts before they run their course.

Neither the White House nor members of Congress have offered reason to hope for a deal before Friday's deadline.

Asked Monday whether he thought the automatic cuts, called "sequestration" in Washington-speak, would take effect, House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, responded: "hope springs eternal."

Both sides have concentrated more in recent days on apportioning responsibility for the spending reductions, to which both sides agreed in August 2011 with the expectation that the sequestration would never come to pass.

The White House public relations initiative has increasingly drawn criticism from Republicans who accuse the president of exaggerating and traveling around "campaigning" instead of looking for ways to avoid the cuts.

"We heard the president say last week that he was going to be forced because of the sequestration to let criminals loose on the street if he didn't get another tax hike," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told reporters Monday.

"Today, we're hearing discussions from the Secretary of Homeland Security that somehow we're going to have to sacrifice homeland security efforts and keeping our country safe if we don't get another tax hike. This is a false choice."

White House press secretary Jay Carney responded Monday that the administration is just trying to "highlight the impact of sequester, and by doing so, hope that attention will be brought to bear on that problem, and the need for Congress to act responsibly to avoid it."

Obama is scheduled to travel to Cantor's state of Virgina on Tuesday, to press his case at the Newport News shipyard. The cuts fall evenly on non-defense and defense spending, with states like Virginia, heavily dependent on Pentagon contracts, expected to be hardest hit.

(Reporting by Mark Felsenthal and David Morgan; Editing by Fred Barbash, Eric Beech, Jackie Frank, Eric Walsh)

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