Frenzy over sequester hits Capitol Hill
The showdown over the sequester is at full force on Capitol Hill this week.
With former Vice President Dick Cheney set to arrive in Congress on Tuesday for a rare talk with House Republicans about looming cuts to the Pentagon, partisan sparring continued to escalate: Democrats repeated their hard line on the sequester and expiration of the Bush tax cuts for the rich as Republicans accused their counterparts of inviting another recession.
The House this week will vote on a defense spending bill as well as a plan ordering the Obama administration to say how it would go about implementing the $500 billion in defense cuts set to kick in on Jan. 2.
It all adds up to a preview of the year-end battle royal expected to dominate Washington.
“You have found over the last several months, people have started to become more and more aware of what’s going on,” said Republican Rep. Randy Forbes, who represents a defense-heavy district in southeastern Virginia. “The unbelievable result of sequestration is starting to hit home to people and they’re starting to say, ‘My gosh, these guys can’t be serious about letting this happen.’”
The flurry of activity was triggered by a sequester deadline enacted into law almost a year ago to force Congress to reach a deficit-reduction deal. It was meant to force Congress to deal with its deficit problem — or else face $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts to defense and nondefense programs that neither party wants.
Now the reality of those cuts — and the inability of Capitol Hill to cut a deal to avoid them — is coming into focus.
“It’s been nearly a year since the president demanded a half a trillion dollars in automatic cuts to defense at the end of this year, and yet with the date now fast approaching, we still don’t know how he intends to handle it,” Sen. Mitch McConnell said on the floor on Monday. “The president’s campaign wants people asking whether his opponent is hiding something on a 10-year-old tax return. How about what this president is actually concealing about his plans to slash defense?”
In one sign of the seriousness of the issue, Cheney will meet with House Republicans on Tuesday about how to stop sequestration from hitting the defense budget, GOP sources told POLITICO.
Cheney, who served in Congress in the 1970s and ’80s, will speak to Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy’s GOP whip team Tuesday evening and is expected to drop by a meeting of the Elected Leadership Committee, a group that includes Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), McCarthy (R-Calif.) and other GOP leaders.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) has called a press conference with the Aerospace Industries Association on Tuesday to warn about massive job losses in the defense industry.
“Military leaders have been clear that defense sequestration will deprive our troops of the resources they need and undermine our national security for generations,” Ayotte said in a statement. “I’m hopeful that this week’s focus on sequestration will spur an increased sense of urgency for members of both parties to work together now to find an alternative solution.”
The Aerospace Industries Association has also launched a website and a nationwide campaign to sound the alarm on sequestration. The groups says more than 1 million defense jobs would be at risk.
And several industry leaders in North Carolina — home to what they said are more than 46,000 high-skilled defense jobs — sent a letter to Congress urging them to stop the sequester.
“[S]equestration could cost the state at least 11,000 jobs (and potentially more if local bases and installations are cut),” the letter said. “The matter cannot be put off until a lame-duck session of Congress as firms are already shedding jobs and holding off on projects in the current climate of uncertainty and risk.”
The issue will take center stage Wednesday at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on the effects of cuts to the defense industry.
“The committee has been working for a year to put a human face on what some see as merely a political bargaining chip: automatic defense cuts,” said committee spokesman Claude Chafin. “This hearing will highlight what many of our members already know, that between layoff notices, critical shortage of military resources and driving our men and women out of the force, these cuts are already doing irrevocable damage.”
But Democrats, at least so far, are showing no sign of buckling. Washington Sen. Patty Murray on Monday offered the latest vow to get tough with Republicans on the so-called fiscal cliff — a combination of tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to go into effect next year absent congressional action.
“You know what? If Democrats were willing to accept a wildly imbalanced deficit-reduction plan to avoid the automatic cuts — we would have done that back in the supercommittee,” Murray said at a speech at The Brookings Institution on Monday. “But we didn’t then, and we will not now.”
And rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers — even those whose constituents back home could disproportionately bear the pain of the automatic cuts — are stiffening their spines, too. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said he’s urging defense companies to pressure Republicans to accept revenue as part of the equation.
“Reasonable people understand that revenue needs to be on the table,” Connolly said. “You’re not going to solve it by spending cuts alone.”
And it’s not just Congress and defense industry types who are issuing warnings. The National Governors Association said it’s increasingly worried about the effects of sequestration on local economies.
“I think the president needs to lead on this, get Congress back and do something about sequestration,” Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said on CNN on Sunday.
Defense officials are watching closely what happens on the Hill.
“It’s our strong desire to avoid sequestration and devastating defense cuts that would be triggered if a budget agreement isn’t reached,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told POLITICO. “We have made our concerns clear to the United States Congress, and we look forward to continuing to work with the Hill to address questions related to the Defense Department budget and the strategy-driven process that guided our budget proposals.”
Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, said progress must be made in Congress this week.
“Congress should stay in session unless and until these cuts are off the table, and the president, as commander in chief, must provide the leadership necessary to resolve this,” said Rigell’s spokeswoman, Kim Mosser Knapp.
Jake Sherman contributed to this report.
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