Sequester on the Rocks: At TIME 100 Cocktail Gala, Air Traffic Delays Stir Debate

As sequestration begins to take its toll, TIME 100 honorees Valerie Jarrett and Senator Rand Paul have opposing views of who's to blame.

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United States Senator Rand Paul attends the 2013 Time 100 Gala at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 23, 2013 in New York City.

Correction appended at 2:40 p.m.

American travelers began to feel the bite of across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration this week, as the Federal Aviation Administration furloughed 1,500 air traffic controllers, prompting delays for hundreds of flights. By law, sequestration requires uniform cuts to every “program, project or activity” not explicitly exempted by Congress, including the FAA, and the Republican-led House was explicit about that in its report for fiscal year 2013 appropriations for the agency. President Obama, who opposes the cuts, nevertheless gets to decide some matters of timing, via powers given to the White House Office of Management and Budget under the law — and the furloughing of 10% of the nation’s 15,000 air traffic controllers is among the first budget reductions to take effect.

(MORE: Sequestration Begins to Bite)

As the cuts’ impact worsens, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and White House adviser Valerie Jarrett — both of whom were honored Tuesday night at the TIME 100 gala in New York City — had strikingly different versions of who’s to blame.

“I think that it’s inexcusable to take important things like travel, air traffic controllers or meat inspectors or something that most of us agree we should have, and play a game with it,” Sen. Paul said. “The same day that [President Obama] announces that we have no self-guided tours in the White House, he sends $250 million to Egypt. We’ve got money. It’s a matter of priorities, and a good leader wouldn’t cut essential services. So I think it’s a bit of a charade and it ought to stop.”

Republicans are accusing the White House of playing politics with the budget cuts, arguing that the president is front-loading cuts to vital programs like air traffic control in order to force Congress to lift sequestration altogether. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tried and failed on Tuesday to move a bill through the Senate that would have canceled the cuts for the remaining five months of the fiscal year.

(MORE: ‘We’re Not Bending’ to Terrorism: Vice President Biden at Emotional TIME 100 Gala)

But Jarrett, an adviser to the president, says the problem with sequestration isn’t about funding priorities. The issue, she says, is the imposition of sequestration itself.

“We don’t [have the money],” said Jarrett, in response to Paul’s statement. “And that was the whole point of why we wanted to avoid the sequester, because it doesn’t provide you with the flexibility that you need. We made it very clear last year what the consequences would be if we didn’t take the appropriate action to turn it off. Obviously, this is something we want to avoid if we could.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Democrats have accused the White House of playing politics on sequestration. That is inaccurate and the post has been updated.