* Obama gives warning in Virginia shipyard
* US releases some detained immigrants due to cuts
* Republicans say White House playing politics
* Spending cuts look likely to begin Friday
By Mark Felsenthal
NEWPORT NEWS, Va., Feb 26 President Barack Obama
on Tuesday warned of threats to Navy readiness and the
government released hundreds of illegal immigrants due to budget
pressure as automatic government spending cuts crept closer.
In the latest event staged by the White House to warn of the
possible damage to public services, Obama spoke at the Newport
News Shipbuilding shipyard where scheduled maintenance to the
aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln has been delayed by the
"The threat of these cuts has already forced the Navy to
cancel the deployment, or delay the repair of certain aircraft
carriers. One that's currently being built might not get
finished," he warned.
The $85 billion across-the-board budget cuts are due to
begin on Friday, and might eventually force the government to
scale back on a host of services such as air traffic control,
law enforcement and food safety inspections.
"These cuts are wrong. They are not smart. They're not fair.
They are a self-inflicted wound that doesn't have to happen," he
told workers in Newport News, Virginia.
In a move criticized by Republicans as a dangerous political
stunt, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency
released several hundred detained illegal immigrants in order to
save money in preparation for the cuts.
An agreement in Congress would halt the cuts, but with days
to go before the ax starts to fall, the two parties do not agree
on what to replace them with. There have been hardly any budget
talks between the parties since New Year.
Republicans seek different, more targeted, spending cuts
than entailed in "sequestration," as the automatic cuts are
known in Washington budget parlance. They complain that Obama is
overplaying worries about sequestration to promote long-held
plans to close tax loopholes.
House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner accused Obama
of using "our military men and women as a prop in yet another
campaign rally to support his tax hikes."
Boehner, under pressure by conservatives not to cave to
Obama's demand for higher taxes, said members of the
Democratic-controlled Senate need to "get off their ass" and
pass legislation that would blunt the impact of the cuts.
In the Senate, Republicans struggled to come up with a
unified plan for replacing the cuts, with Senate Republican
leader Mitch McConnell saying lawmakers should simply pass a law
giving the president flexibility on how the reductions would be
carried out. Obama rejected that idea.
In a sign of how far they are from halting sequestration,
congressional Republicans and the White House have been trying
to blame each other for the cuts, which both Democrats and
Republicans agreed to in a 2011 plan to fix an earlier budget
BLAME SHARED FOR CUTS
"The president's been running around acting like the world's
going to end because Congress might actually follow through on
an idea he proposed and signed into law - all the while
pretending he's somehow powerless to stop it," said McConnell.
Americans blame both Obama and congressional Republicans for
the sequestration crisis, according to a Reuters/Ipsos online
poll released on Tuesday.
Twenty-five percent of people said Republicans in Congress
were responsible for sequestration, 23 percent blamed Obama and
5 percent pointed to congressional Democrats. Thirty percent
said all of them were to blame.
With a trip to a defense-heavy region of the country, Obama
is seeking to draw attention to how the cuts would play out in
communities where the military is a major source of jobs.
Defense spending makes up 9.8 percent of Virginia's gross
But sequestration will be brought in gradually, and no shock
to the economy is expected on Friday when it starts.
"The impact of this policy won't be felt overnight but it
will be real," Obama said. "The longer these cuts are in place
the greater the damage."
The planned cuts will be phased in over seven months, giving
lawmakers time to halt the worst effects, possibly in budget
talks later in March.
But the Obama administration is highlighting a series of
cuts to public services which are threatened.
The release of several hundred illegal immigrants due to
budget pressures was criticized by the Republican head of the
House Judiciary Committee as a political stunt to pressure
Congress to put off sequestration.
"It's abhorrent that President Obama is releasing criminals
into our communities to promote his political agenda on
sequestration," U.S. Representative Bob Goodlatte said in a
Immigration and Customs Enforcement released the immigrants
while their deportation cases proceed. ICE spokeswoman Gillian
Christensen said serious offenders were still being held.
Sequestration might be stopped as part of negotiations next
month over another unrelated fiscal issue: a continuing
resolution to fund government operations.
But House Republicans think they are in a strong bargaining
position as there is not likely to be public outcry when the
cuts start, unlike the "fiscal cliff" crisis at the New Year
when the threat of tax hikes for most working Americans kept
pressure on lawmakers to reach a deal.
The sequestration cuts apply in equal measure to non-defense
spending and defense spending.
The reductions will force the Pentagon to put most of its
800,000 civilian employees on unpaid leave for 22 days, slash
ship and aircraft maintenance and curtail training, Defense
Department officials have told Congress. Pentagon contracting
and acquisitions personnel were authorized last week to consult
with their industry counterparts about the upcoming spending
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, in testimony on
Tuesday to the Senate Banking Committee, urged lawmakers to
avoid the spending cuts, warning that combined with earlier tax
increases it could create a "significant headwind" for the