President Barack Obama has called on Congress to prevent severe federal budget cuts from taking effect on March 1, saying the middle class, the economy and a number of basic Justice Department priorities would suffer as a result.

Flanked by first responders at the White House, Obama on February 19 listed the consequences of $1 trillion in arbitrary and automatic cuts, called sequestration. There would be reduced hours for border patrol agents and furloughs at the Federal Bureau of Investigations. And federal prosecutors "will have to close cases and let criminals go," Obama said.

Obama did not mention the federal courts, where leaders have warned that $555 million in cuts would imperil the justice system by forcing layoffs of as many as one court staffer in three, decimating court security and ending juror pay. Some district courts have planned for the need to close their main courthouses if the cuts happen.

Congress avoided the "fiscal cliff" on January 1 with a last-minute plan that delayed the automatic cuts until March 1. But in that time, Congress has still not passed a plan to avoid sequestration. Both the House and Senate are on break this week for the President’s Day holiday, leaving only a few legislative days next week for a solution.

The Senate has agreed to have either Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) or Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) introduce a bill February 25 or February 26 to replace the sequester under the Budget Control Act. For now, there is no clear legislative path.

Obama aimed his comments at Republicans, urging them to come together to avoid "this meat-cleaver approach" of automatic cuts. He said the cuts were designed to be "so unattractive and unappealing that Democrats and Republicans would actually get together and find a good compromise of sensible cuts as well as closing tax loopholes and so forth."

He asked for a package that contains both spending cuts and closing tax loopholes, and said he would not sign any bill that hurt the middle class. Sequestration "won’t consider whether we’re cutting some bloated program that has outlived its usefulness, or a vital service that Americans depend on every single day," Obama said. "It doesn’t make those distinctions."

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) responded in a written statement, saying the House has already passed two pieces of legislation that replace the sequester with common-sense cuts. Boehner said the "revenue debate is now closed" and that "spending is the problem, spending must be the focus."

"Replacing the president’s sequester will require a plan to cut spending that will put us on the path to a budget that is balanced in 10 years," Boehner said in the statement. "To keep these first responders on the job, what other spending is the president willing to cut?"

Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., in a February 1 letter to Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), outlined the $1.6 billion cuts from the DOJ’s current funding level the agency could face under a sequestration. Holder estimated the department would lose more than 1,000 federal agents to combat violent crime, pursue financial crimes and help ensure national security, as well as 1,300 correctional officers in federal prisons.

The $100 million that would be cut from U.S. attorney office budgets means 2,600 fewer cases than last fiscal year, 1,600 fewer civil cases and 1,000 fewer criminal cases would be pursued, Holder wrote.

Unless Congress and the White House resolve the stalemate over the budget, 8.2 percent across-the-board cuts to federal programs would strip $555 million from the courts. Those cuts would be "devastating," according to a October 2 analysis by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts.

Contact Todd Ruger at truger@alm.com.