Big cuts spur calls to Congress from irate constituents
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congress is getting an earful about the big spending cuts beginning to hit government services from worried and irate constituents, including one senator's own spouse.
Democratic Senator Thomas Carper of Delaware said his wife, "my most important constituent," asked him, "Why can't you guys get your act together? Do you know what people think of you guys?"
"I told her that Washington needs to work more like Delaware," said Carper, a former governor of the state. "In Delaware, Democrats and Republicans work together."
They have not worked together in Washington. And so the across-the-board cuts of the so-called "sequester" - which both Republicans and Democrats have said they oppose - took effect Friday night after President Barack Obama and Republican leaders failed to agree on a way to replace them with targeted spending reductions.
Up until the final few days before Friday, when the reductions began because of a law enacted in 2011, constituents urged, some begged, lawmakers to avert them.
The cuts threaten the U.S. economic recovery, could disrupt federal services from airports to national parks, and may force furloughs of hundreds of thousands of federal workers and employees of federal contractors, the administration says.
"They want to kill us all," Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, said of his constituents.
Laura Zayner, a senior officer with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, was among 400 federal workers facing possible furloughs who came to Washington last week to lobby Congress.
"We consider the furlough a slap in the face. We take it personally," Zayner said. "We are not picking sides, Democrats or Republicans. But we want them to do their jobs and stop the cuts."
John Kelshaw, who works with the Internal Revenue Service, came to town from New Jersey. He and a few other federal workers met with Republican Representative John Runyan.
"We told him that a lot of our people live paycheck to paycheck. We said, 'Give us a break,'" Kelshaw said. He said Runyan, of New Jersey, listened but made no commitments.
WHO'S TO BLAME?
Polls so far show most Americans blame Republicans rather than Obama and his Democrats for the standoff. But that could change.
Republicans insist that any deficit-reduction replacement deal include only spending cuts. Democrats want a mix of spending cuts and tax increases.
According to a February 28 Gallup survey, 56 percent of those polled thought the cuts will damage the economy. The feeling crossed party lines, Gallup reported, with 64 percent of Republicans and 51 percent of Democrats agreeing they would inflict economic pain.
Democratic Senator Mark Pryor said his constituents in Arkansas routinely ask him, "'Why can't you guys work it out?'"
Pryor said he tells them, "Nobody has clean hands on this."
Both sides seem to size up any issue on a basis of who gets the political advantage, he said. "If someone suddenly came up with a cure to cancer, the question in Washington would be, 'Is this good or bad for Obama?'"
The president on Friday said of the cuts, "This is not a win for anybody. This is a loss for the American people."
Hatch, of Utah, said he recently told his state legislature that he expected the federal government to impose the sweeping cuts. "A number of them stood up and said maybe that's the only way we are going get any real reduction in spending," he said.
On the other side, Representative Luis Gutierrez, a Chicago Democrat who won an 11th term last year with more than 80 percent of the vote, said his constituents "tell me 'Keep on fighting, Luis, keep on fighting.'"
Representative Scott Rigell, a Virginia Republican whose district includes the shipbuilding yards in Newport News that are likely to be hit hard by cuts in military spending, was dismayed by the untargeted reductions.
Rigell got a letter from a constituent last month that read in part, "My husband, a project manager for the defense industry, went to work this morning to lay off half of his workforce because of sequestration."
In an interview, Rigell said, "When I think they (shipyard workers) could lose their jobs because of the dysfunction in Washington ... this is not acceptable to me."
"I've been at that shipyard. Some of hardest working folks I know. They're coming in at 5:30 a.m. with a lunch bucket and making $35,000 a year and wondering if they'll have a job."
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Fred Barbash and Vicki Allen)
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