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.

A trio of the Senate’s leading GOP defense hawks have a message about cuts in military spending, slated for Jan. 1: Under no circumstances can America sustain them – and Republicans are willing to give up sacred ground on taxes to make sure they don’t occur.

“We are willing to compromise,” said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who as a Vietnam War hero was given a roaring welcome in Norfolk, Va. – the heart of the US congressional district with the largest concentration of military installations. “We are not wedded to any one position because there is too much at stake. So I am asking you to get into the fight.”

Senator McCain was joined by fellow Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, a threesome that has frequently taken to the floor of the Senate to decry the impact of $55 billion in looming defense-spending reductions. The area’s member of Congress, Rep. Scott Rigell (R), was also in attendance Monday evening.

The town hall was the third stop in the trio’s “Preserving America’s Strength” tour, which included earlier discussions in Tampa, Fla., and Fayetteville, N.C. On Tuesday, the group was to hold a final meeting in Merrimack, N.H. In Norfolk, they were greeted by some 200 listeners who were largely older and affiliated with the armed services.

Many said they came to the speech because they fear what the defense cuts would mean for their community.

“These are our Fortune 500 companies,” said Lynne Uher of Virginia Beach.

One defense-industry-funded study showed roughly 1 million jobs at risk if the cuts happen, although Virginia and Florida were the only states on the “America’s Strength” trip to make the Top 10. The Sunshine State was fourth with more than 49,000 potential job losses. Virginia was seventh with some 37,000.

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.

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.

Senator Warner has been a tireless advocate for a large, bipartisan solution to America’s debt problems. Plans proffered by Warner-led groups have outlined as much as $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade, a level of fiscal responsibility that would more than alleviate the need for the sequester.

Likewise, Senator Nelson sent a letter to the Republican group stating his support for their aims.

“You can count on my bipartisan cooperation,” he concluded in the letter.

If bipartisan negotiations come to pass, McCain, Graham, and Ayotte are set to advocate a one-year fix to be agreed upon before November’s elections, thereby allowing the new Congress to settle the issue in 2013. And if negotiations begin, it is this core of Republican senators who will probably form the bulwark of support on the right for a deal.

Graham has argued that heading off the sequester could be done in the same way that the president’s commission on debt, known as Bowles-Simpson after its authors, proposed fixing America’s long-term debt situation: about $1 in higher tax revenue for every $3 in spending reductions.

Such an approach cuts directly against Republican orthodoxy embodied in the vaunted Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which north of 90 percent of congressional Republicans have signed in a promise to never raise taxes.

“I know it’s uncomfortable for Republicans to talk about revenues the way I’m talking about it, and I know some Democrats get nervous about cutting some social programs. But you know what, on our worst day, this is nothing compared to what our men and women are doing,” Graham said. “How many battles have we fought?

It’s vital to make a deal before the elections, the group argued, because once the cuts take shape, the strain they put on businesses will be irreversible.

The main problem?

“Long story short, we’re miles apart right now,” Graham said. “Somebody’s got to break this gridlock; and if we don’t get this right, all hell is going to break out throughout our defense community.”

What that might look like stared the trio in the face on Monday evening.

“Sequestration infuriates me,” said Mark Stet, a retired Navy officer from Virginia Beach, during his time to question the senators. “Why it infuriates me is because my son died in Pakistan.”

Staff Sgt. Mark Stet Jr. was killed in Pakistan’s restive North West Frontier Province by an improvised explosive device Feb. 3, 2010, according to a release from the Department of Defense.

Mr. Stet argued that a Congress that allows sharply reduced defense spending would be putting more of America’s service members at risk – and that the onus is on both sides to stand up and get a deal immediately.

“My son didn’t die for the crap that you people are doing in D.C.,” he said. “Do you understand me?”

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