By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Federal officials reported flight delays at U.S. airports for a third consecutive day on Tuesday, fueling a political blame game as Republicans and Democrats accused each other of causing the furloughs of thousands of air-traffic controllers.
On Capitol Hill and at the White House, the rhetoric over across-the-board federal budget cuts known as "sequestration" became increasingly biting. Both sides tried to take political advantage - and avoid responsibility - for cuts by the Federal Aviation Administration that officials say could plague the country's aviation system during the summer travel season.
Republicans accused Democratic President Barack Obama of needlessly forcing the furloughs so he could blame Republicans for failed negotiations over the nation's debt. They said the FAA and Obama could adjust federal spending priorities to avoid affecting travelers so significantly.
"Stop punishing the American people," Republican Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina said in a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives that was directed largely at Obama.
Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania accused Obama's administration of making a "willful choice" to "inflict as disruptive a process as possible on the American public and on our economy, all to further a political agenda."
White House spokesman Jay Carney fought back, blaming Republican-backed spending cuts for the furloughs and saying they could be stopped only by congressional approval of a new budget plan.
"Republicans made a choice," Carney said. "This is a result of the sequester being implemented. We made it clear that there would be these kinds of negative effects if Congress failed to take reasonable action to avert the sequester."
The furloughs of air-traffic controllers by the FAA, intended to reduce staffing by 10 percent across the nation, began on Sunday and led to delays in more than 10,000 flights and the cancellation of 600 over the first two days, the controllers' union said.
On Tuesday, the FAA indicated there were more delays at a number of Eastern airports that it tied to "staffing," including New York's LaGuardia and Washington's Reagan National.
The FAA's 47,000 employees, including 13,000 air-traffic controllers, will be furloughed for about one day every two weeks to cut costs under a budget-cutting program set to last through September, the end of the U.S. government's fiscal year.
Some analysts predict flight delays and congestion at airports could increase through the busy summer travel season - a scenario that would spread the impact of the sequestration cuts to millions of Americans, and likely ignite more anger at Washington and its political gridlock.
POLITICAL RISKS FOR BOTH SIDES
An aviation system in disarray, along with the fallout from a range of other prolonged budget cuts, could put both Obama and congressional Republicans at considerable political risk, analysts said.
Obama is entering a crucial round of negotiations on spending and on legislation to overhaul immigration. After falling short in his effort to get significant gun-control legislation through even the Democrat-controlled Senate, Obama's image as a leader could be damaged if the aviation system becomes unreliable to travelers, the analysts said.
"If this becomes a symbol of him as an ineffective leader and Republicans smell blood, they might be less inclined to enter into a deal now and it could impact other kinds of legislation," said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University historian.
But polls indicate more Americans blame Washington's problems on congressional Republicans, whose party is viewed as less flexible and more ideologically extreme. Analysts say that ongoing problems caused by sequestration could fuel a public opinion backlash against Republicans - and put Republican House Speaker John Boehner and his colleagues at a disadvantage in any confrontation with Democrats over budget issues.
"While everybody's image was hurt in the debt ceiling fight, Republicans' were hurt worse," said Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center.
Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said the public had soured on Washington's political gamesmanship to the point that any extended fight over furloughs and flight delays would hurt both sides.
"People are so sour about Washington right now," Bowman said. "Even though the numbers might suggest Republicans will get more blame than Obama - and institutions often get more blame than individuals - I would say the public will lay the blame on Washington as a whole."
'WHY IS OBAMA DELAYING YOUR FLIGHT?'
In Washington, the finger-pointing heated up. Republican congressional leaders have fired off a coordinated series of tweets under the hash tag #Obamaflightdelays.
"Why is President Obama unnecessarily delaying your flight?" House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia asked on Twitter.
Democrats responded with their own Twitter hash tag: #GOPSequester, and suggested Republicans who were angry about the FAA cuts did not seem as upset when the budget cuts hit social initiatives such as the Meals on Wheels program for the elderly and the Head Start education program for children of low-income families.
Democrats cast the FAA furloughs as the result of a Republican drive to cut spending across the government.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said they had little flexibility under the sequester law to change spending levels for the aviation system.
"I only hope public outcry over long delays at airports will serve as a wake-up call to my Republican colleagues," Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said, urging Republicans to negotiate with Democrats on a new budget agreement.
Reid said Democrats had a new plan to turn off the sequester for five months by claiming savings from the drawdown of Afghanistan and Iraq war spending. Democrats hoped to bring the bill to the floor, but it would face a tough road to passage and is unlikely to come to a vote before early May.
U.S. Senate Commerce Committee leaders from both parties pressed the administration on Tuesday for more information on the furlough plan.
Chairman Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, and Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the panel's top Republican, said in a letter that the furloughs, along with a plan to close some air-traffic control towers, raised "serious safety and operational issues."
(Additional reporting by David Lawder; Editing by David Lindsey and Peter Cooney)