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GOP roadshow: Senators pound on need to stave off defense cuts

Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte are holding town-hall meetings to generate awareness about looming defense cuts. On Monday, they stopped in the military center of Norfolk, Va.

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The cuts are part of the sequester – Washington shorthand for the automatic spending reductions mandated by the Budget Control Act, which ended last summer’s debt-ceiling fight. McCain voted for the bill; Senators Ayotte and Graham joined 17 other Republicans in voting against it.

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Both parties say the cuts – in both defense and discretionary spending – are abhorrent. But a special committee of 12 lawmakers from both chambers couldn’t find a formula for offsetting the planned reductions. As such, they’re slated to hit the economy in the new year.

The town halls – part educational events to explain the sequester and part grass-roots rallies to generate awareness – demonstrate the uncomfortable intermingling of policy and politics that has led to so much gridlock on Capitol Hill ahead of November’s elections. 

On one hand, the Republican senators laid out the impact of the cuts in stark and evocative terms, citing numerous officials from the Obama administration and the military who have characterized the cuts as leading to a “hollowed out” US armed services. They also attempted to drive home just how much the cuts would affect military-dominated southeastern Virginia, with Graham saying sequestration would shackle the area “for a generation.”

On the other, they attempted to lay blame for the issue at the feet of President Obama, on a tour landing in four key swing states for November’s elections.

“At the end of the day, we have to make this a political campaign, and we have to challenge the president to call John [McCain] and say, ‘John, let’s fix this one thing before the election,’ ” Graham said.

Representative Rigell emphasized that without presidential leadership, nothing would get accomplished.

“There’s only one commander in chief. I’m not the commander in chief; Senator McCain isn’t,” Rigell said in a subsequent interview. “As commander in chief, your chief of naval operations, is saying, ‘Sir, if this goes through, there will be severe and permanent [damage],’ full stop. As POTUS, [he should say], ‘Not on my watch.’ ”

McCain dismissed a question as to why the commonwealth’s two senators, Democrats Mark Warner and Jim Webb, were absent from the event, saying they were invited but that “their schedules or desires were otherwise.”

Considering their background and public statements on the matter, those senators, as well as Sen. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida, are the least likely to need public pressure to support a deal on the sequester. In fact, they look to be key allies for McCain, Graham, and Ayotte in any sequester negotiation.

“Senators Ayotte, Graham, and McCain could be making better use of their time by working across party lines to avert arbitrary cuts to defense programs instead of appearing at staged events in three or four swing states for obvious political reasons,” said Senator Webb, who has one of the lengthiest defense résumés of any Democratic lawmaker, in a statement.

“I am well aware of the implications of sequestration for our nation’s defense and industrial base. Once these politically motivated, staged events run their course, I am looking forward to beginning a bipartisan effort to achieve a responsible solution to our pressing fiscal challenges,” he said.


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