WASHINGTON - The nation's governors are becoming prominent voices in the fight to cut the federal deficit, warning that Capitol Hill's latest budget stalemate is radiating fresh waves of uncertainty that threatens economic progress in their states.
Gathered in Washington for the annual meeting of the National Governors Association, Republican and Democratic state leaders joined on Friday to condemn massive spending cuts - known as the "sequester" - set to begin on March 1. White House officials warned that inaction could lead to widespread flight delays, shuttered airports, off-limit seashores and hundreds of thousands of furloughed employees spread across dozens of states.
"It is not helpful when Congress and the president and the administration have such partisan gridlock," said Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican and former member of Congress. "Because their gridlock has real repercussions on the families ... it has real repercussions on our states and our economies."
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said the nation "cannot afford to put at risk jobs and the recovery."
"The only thing that's standing in the way of prosperity right now is the games being played by the Republicans in Congress," he said following a meeting between Democratic governors and President Barack Obama.
The governors are scheduled to meet through the weekend, with the discussion expected to turn to jobs and the economy, gun control and the implementation of the president's health care overhaul.
Some Republican governors have blocked the use of Medicaid to expand health insurance coverage for millions of the uninsured, while others have joined Democrats in a wholesale expansion as the new law allows.
But no issue carries the same level of urgency as the budget stalemate.
From their nearby offices on Capitol Hill, congressional leaders have indicated a growing willingness to let the automatic spending cuts take effect and stay in place for weeks if not much longer. The change would trim $85 billion in domestic and defense spending, triggering furloughs for hundreds of thousands of Transportation Department and Defense Department employees, among others. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned that the automatic cuts would harm the readiness of U.S. fighting forces.
Obama in recent days has intensified efforts to warn the public of the negative effects, while applying pressure on congressional Republicans who oppose his blend of targeted savings and tax increases to tackle federal deficits.
Republicans in Congress responded sharply to the president's fresh demand to include higher taxes as part of a compromise.
"Spending is the problem, spending must be the focus," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky declared: "There won't be any easy off-ramps on this one. The days of eleventh-hour negotiations are over."
But governors aren't yet resigned to the worst-case scenario.
"I think there should be limited government, but I don't like random changes. If you look at my budget, I didn't do across the board cuts," said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican. "I think you should be more strategic."
Indeed, the package of domestic and military cuts now approaching was never supposed to happen. It was designed as a fallback, to take effect only in case a congressional "supercommittee" failed to come up with $1 trillion or more in savings from benefit programs.
While Washington Republicans blame the White House for creating the plan, they joined Democrats in voting it into law.
There was little Obama-bashing from Republican governors on Friday. But there was plenty of frustration.