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Will flight delays stir up ire against sequester?

Rolling flight delays blamed on automatic government spending cuts imposed in March snarled some of the nation's busiest airports, testing how Americans will gauge Washington's sequester solution to spending and debt issues.

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Hammered out as a deal in 2011 to raise the nation’s debt limit – and agreed to by both Mr. Obama and Republicans – the sequester mandates across-the-board cuts for most agencies. The total spending cuts amount to about $85 billion a year through 2021, though federal outlays will still continue to increase at a rate of about $238 billion per year. The nation’s debt currently stands at $16.8 trillion, compared with $10 trillion in 2008. Each American’s share of the debt is about $53,000.

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As a way to temper the debt surge, the sequester is turning into a palpable test of American patience for what many see as austerity measures in tough economic times, political scientists say.

Some travelers were far from amused on Monday, and tweeted their displeasure. But experts say the real test will be how the cutbacks affect business travelers, cargo flights, and, in particular, Washington's Reagan National Airport.

“I think we can’t downplay the importance of potential problems at Reagan National, where most of the members of Congress fly in and out of,” says Mr. Traugott. “We’ll see how long it takes or how much worse it gets, but, if it does, I would expect an exemption for the FAA” from Congress.

(As of 1:05 p.m. on Tuesday, delays at Reagan National were 15 minutes or less, according to the FAA.)

Though the sequester was technically Obama’s idea, the White House warned for months before they took effect on March 1 that the automatic cuts could have “devastating” consequences on Americans and the US economy, including long lines and waits at airports, not to mention impacts on military students, Head Start, and Medicare.

“What’s important to understand is that not everyone will feel the pain of these cuts right away,” Obama said shortly after the sequester took effect in early March. “The pain, though, will be real.… The longer these cuts remain in place, the greater the damage to our economy, a slow grind that will intensify with each passing day.”

Republicans have alleged the FAA furloughs are an unnecessary “stunt” designed to foment anger against conservatives who forced the debt limit issue. But US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Congress the furloughs were unavoidable, saying the agency could not avoid “retrenchment of core functions.”

FlightStats, a website that tracks cancellations and delays, said most delays so far Tuesday were wind-related, although the FAA is now reporting that Dallas-Fort Worth is experiencing excessive delays Tuesday afternoon, attributable directly to staffing.

So far, however, the FAA’s suggestion that many airports could see 3-1/2 hour delays has not come to pass.

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