Republican senators introduce plan to avoid automatic cuts to defense

A group of Republican senators is introducing legislation Thursday that would erase the first year of automatic cuts by reducing the federal workforce by 5 percent through attrition.

The senators, led by Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), said the legislation was essential to maintaining the strength of the military, which would be devastated if the $500 billion in sequestration cuts were to take effect in January 2013 on top of an already planned $487 billion reduction.

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Sequestration refers to automatic spending cuts of $1.2 trillion — roughly half of which targets military budgets — that were triggered to take effect in 2013 by the failure of the deficit-reduction supercommittee. That bipartisan panel admitted defeat last November, meaning sequestration will follow unless Congress changes the law.

“Let’s not let a domestic issue such as tax increases interfere with what could be devastating,” McCain said. “Everyone agrees that sequestration cannot take place. This is a proposal that we think has great validity.”

But Democrats quickly panned the plan, just as they did for similar legislation introduced in December by House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.). Democrats say that Republicans must be willing to accept tax increases in order to undo sequestration.

A group of 127 House Democrats, headed by Reps. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and George Miller (D-Calif.), sent a letter to President Obama Thursday urging him to veto the legislation attempting to roll back the defense cuts.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said that the bill “isn’t about avoiding sequestration, it’s about avoiding having millionaires pay their fair share.”

“If Republicans are serious about replacing the automatic spending cuts, then they are going to need to work with Democrats to find an equal amount of balanced deficit reduction that doesn’t simply increase the pain for the middle class,” Murray said.

The bill does not have any Democratic co-sponsors, “nor have we sought any” at this point, McCain said. The senators repeatedly stressed that the idea of changing sequestration has bipartisan support, quoting Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that the additional cuts are unacceptable and would hollow out the military.

“We’re not going to use a millionaire tax to fix every problem around here,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “If the Democrats have a problem with the way we’re paying for this, surely to God in a budget this big we can find enough money to avoid decimating the Department of Defense.”

The legislation would reduce the federal workforce 5 percent over a decade by only hiring back two workers for every three that leave. The bill would also keep in place a pay freeze on federal workers through June 2014.

Overall, the bill would save $127 billion, with $110 billion going to undo the first year of sequestration for both defense and nondefense discretionary spending.

McCain said that he would be open to other ideas and that the issue had to be tackled now because the Pentagon can’t have the uncertainty hanging over its budget throughout 2012.

“We’re not saying this is engraved in golden tablets,” McCain said. “We are saying this is our proposal. The president has no proposal.”