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Leaked email adds fuel to claims White House playing politics over impact of cuts

A leaked email from an Agriculture Department field officer adds fuel to claims President Obama's political strategy is to make the billions in recent federal budget cuts as painful as possible to win the public opinion battle against Republicans.

The email, circulated around Capitol Hill, was sent Monday by Charles Brown, a director at the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service office in Raleigh, N.C. He appears to tell his regional team about a response to his recent question on the amount of latitude he has in making cuts.

According to the partially redacted email, the response came from the Agriculture Department’s budget office and in part states: “However you manage that reduction, you need to make sure you are not contradicting what we said the impact would be.”

The response noted that the administration had already told Congress that the APHIS would “eliminate assistance to producers in 24 states in managing wildlife damage to the aquaculture industry” without additional funds.

Arkansas Republican Rep. Tim Griffin said the administration’s response to Brown’s email shows a bid to undermine efforts to replace the cuts, known as sequester, with less onerous ones.

“This email confirms what many Americans have suspected: The Obama administration is doing everything they can to make sure their worst predictions come true and to maximize the pain of the sequester cuts for political gain,” Griffin said in a statement.

Griffin told Fox News on Wednesday that the bosses effectively said, “You can’t do anything that is inconsistent with the negative impact that we’ve told everybody these cuts are going to have.”

An Agriculture Department spokesperson told Fox on Wednesday that the email "has been completely taken out of context. The spokesperson said it references "cuts and impacts communicated to Congress as part of the FY2013 budget, not as part of a sequester plan."

Under the 2011 deal reached by Obama and Congress, the cuts are supposed to be across the board, meaning government officials have limited flexibility in moving around money.

The administration in recent weeks has made doomsday predictions about the impact of the cuts. And the White House so far has appeared unwilling to accept a Republican offer to give the president more autonomy in making the cuts, covering $85 billion this fiscal year, to help reduce the impact on some of the most essential or hardest-hit programs or agencies.

Some political strategists say the president hopes the cuts hurt enough to compel Republican lawmakers seeking re-election next year to end them by agreeing to more tax increases.

On Sunday, Gene Sperling, the White House’s top economic adviser, suggested Republicans would indeed make this decision.   

“Our hope is, as more Republicans start to see this pain in their own districts, they will choose bipartisan compromise over this absolutist position,” he said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, during a House hearing Tuesday, was asked by South Dakota Republican Rep. Kristi Noem about the Brown email.

Vilsack said he was unaware of the email, but denied the administration has a policy of being inflexible and maximizing the cuts’ impact.

“I wouldn’t say that we’ve said no to flexibility,” Vilsack said. “But there are certain circumstances where we don’t have flexibility.”  

“I’m hopeful that isn’t an agenda that has been put forward," Noem said.