WASHINGTON -- The automatic budget cuts set to take hold this week were roundly condemned Sunday as governors, lawmakers and administration officials hoped for a deal to stave off the $85 billion reduction in government services that threatens to undermine the fragile economic recovery.

The grim picture is emerging as the White House and lawmakers count down the days until the government is forced to make drastic cuts in domestic and defence spending with hardly any leeway to save some programs from the budget knife. This would lead to furloughs for hundreds of thousands of workers at the Transportation Department, Defence Department and other government agencies, impacting everything from commercial flights to meat inspections.

The so-called sequester now approaching was never supposed to happen. It was designed as an unpalatable fallback, to take effect only in case a specially established bipartisan congressional super-committee failed to come up with $1 trillion or more in savings from government programs.

"It's senseless and it doesn't need to happen," said Maryland's Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, during the annual meeting of the National Governors Association this weekend. "This really threatens to hurt a lot of families in our state and kind of flat line our job growth for the next several months."

Obama has not been able to find success for his balanced approach of reducing deficits through a combination of targeted savings and tax increases. Obama has proposed closing tax loopholes that benefit the wealthiest Americans and corporations.

House Republicans have said reduced spending needs to be the focus and have rejected the president's demand to include higher taxes as part of a compromise. They say legislation passed in early January already raises taxes on the wealthiest Americans to generate an estimated $600 billion for the Treasury over a decade.

With Friday's deadline nearing, few in the U.S. capital were optimistic that a realistic compromise could be found. Instead of dealing with the problem at hand, both sides made assigning blame for the sequester a priority as the clock ticked down.

"Unless the Republicans are willing to compromise and do a balanced approach, I think it will kick in," said Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri

No, it's the Democrats who are to blame, Republicans countered.

"The reason there is no agreement is because there's no leadership from the president on actually recognizing what the problem is," said Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn.

Some governors said the budget impasse was just the latest crisis in Washington that is keeping business from hiring and undermining the ability of governors to develop state spending plans.

"I've not given up hope, but we're going to be prepared for whatever comes," said Nevada's Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval. "There will be consequences for our state."

The White House booked several Cabinet secretaries on the Sunday television talk shows to warn of the approaching economic fallout.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said travellers could see delayed flights. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said 70,000 fewer children from low-income families would have access to pre-kindergarten Head Start early education programs. Furloughed meat inspectors could leave plants idled.

LaHood warned that travellers could face delays because the Federal Aviation Administration is in line for $600 million in spending cuts.

"We're going to try and cut as much as we possibly can out of contracts and other things that we do," said LaHood, a former Republican congressman serving in the Democratic Obama administration. "But in the end, there has to be some kind of furlough of air traffic controllers, and that then will also begin to curtail or eliminate the opportunity for them to guide planes in and out of airports."

Still, top Republicans on Senate and House transportation and aviation panels accused the administration of raising an unnecessary alarm.

"Before jumping to the conclusion that furloughs must be implemented, the administration and the agency need to sharpen their pencils and consider all the options," the lawmakers said in a joint statement.

The cuts would trim from domestic and defence spending alike. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has said the cuts would harm the readiness of U.S. fighting forces. He said the "vast majority" of the Defence Department's 800,000 civilian workers would have to lose one day of work per week, or 20 per cent of their pay, for up to 22 weeks, probably starting in late April.

Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, called those defence cuts "unconscionable" and urged Obama to call lawmakers to the White House or the presidential retreat of Camp David for a last-minute budget summit.

"I won't put all the blame all on the president of the United States. But the president leads. The president should be calling us over somewhere -- Camp David, the White House, somewhere -- and us sitting down and trying to avert these cuts," McCain said.

LaHood, who served as a Republican representing Illinois in the U.S. House, urged his colleagues to watch "Lincoln," Steven Spielberg's film about President Abraham Lincoln's political skills.

"Everybody around here ought to go take a look at the 'Lincoln' movie, where they did very hard things by working together, talking together and compromising," LaHood said. "That's what's needed here."

But there are few signs of urgency among congressional leaders, who have recently indicated their willingness to let the cuts take effect and stay in place for weeks, if not much longer.

The sequester cuts, with few exceptions, are designed to hit all accounts equally. The law gives Obama little leeway to ease the pain. Even if granted flexibility to apply the cuts with more discretion -- a legislative step Republicans say they might pursue -- White House officials say that would still require severe reductions.

McCaskill and Coburn appeared on "Fox News Sunday." McCain was interviewed on CNN's "State of the Union." LaHood spoke with CNN and NBC's "Meet the Press." Duncan spoke to CBS' "Face the Nation."