House approves latest GOP plan to avoid defense sequester

The House approved a new version of a sequester replacement bill on Thursday that would require the Obama administration to propose an alternative to the $55 billion in defense cuts scheduled to take effect in January.

Members approved the bill in a partisan 223-196 vote, though about a dozen Republicans voted against it.

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The National Security and Job Protection Act, H.R. 6365, is the latest attempt by Republicans to dodge cuts to the Department of Defense that they say would seriously damage the ability of the United States to conduct military operations. Some Republicans noted this week's attack on U.S. diplomatic offices in Egypt, Libya and Yemen as a reason why Congress needs to think twice before allowing the cuts to take place.

"The deadly and tragic attacks on Ambassador Chris Stevens, Foreign Service Information Management Office Sean Smith, and two other Americans at our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, make clear that Islamic extremist terrorism remains a tremendous threat to the Middle East, the United States, and the international community," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said.

Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), who sponsored the bill, agreed now is not the time to cut military spending.

"This sequestration does one simple thing: It takes the Army and Marine Corps down to a 1940's level," he said. "It puts 200,000 of our men and women in uniform on the streets. It makes our United States Navy go to 1915 levels.

"We should not be doing this at a time when we all see what is happening in the world right now. When the United States of America has had a sovereign piece of its territory attacked. We've had an ambassador that has lost his life. And the message that we are going to send is that we're going to do nothing?"

Republicans also noted that while the House has already approved a bill that would replace the sequester with a different mix of spending cuts that avoids defense cuts, President Obama has not reacted or made any effort to negotiate a solution based on that bill.

"Rather than him doing his homework, the president has simply taken a pass on this matter and instead provided Congress with nothing," Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) said. "It is an example, I think, to use the president's own words, of an 'incomplete' on ... his report card."

But Democrats said they do have a plan. The trouble, they say, is that Republicans don't like their plan, which involves increasing taxes on the wealthy and eliminating tax breaks for oil companies.

"We hear our Republican colleagues say there's no leadership from the president, they haven't heard any alternatives," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said. "It's just not true. There are lots of alternatives that have been put on the table. They just don't like the alternatives."

Van Hollen himself had an alternative plan that would have repealed the sequester for 2013 and reduced the deficit by about $110 billion through new federal tax revenues, including by ending direct farm payments. However, House Republicans did not allow floor consideration of that amendment.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that decision on the Van Hollen amendment shows that Republicans continue to oppose any new revenue, which is making it impossible to compromise on a long-term debt agreement.

"The reason we have a problem here is because our Republican colleagues have refused to have one red cent from the wealthiest people in our country contribute to resolving this fiscal crisis, this budget crisis," Pelosi said.

While Republicans favor spending cuts, they have also argued that defense cuts should be spared, or at least be subject to less budget trimming, because of the critical functions that military spending serve. Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) hinted at that argument again today.

"Treating every line item the same is a mistake," he said. "Every part is not the same in our budget."

But Democrats questioned why, if sparing defense from cuts is so important, Republicans ever agreed to the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which set up the possibility of steep cuts. Van Hollen and other Democrats noted that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he got 98 percent of what he wanted with the BCA, but now he and other Republicans are saying they are opposed to the sequester.

"To hear our Republican colleagues today, you'd think they had nothing to do with the Budget Control Act," Van Hollen said.

House passage sends the bill to the Senate, but because Democrats there are not expected to consider it at all, House Democrats labeled it a "messaging vote" for Republicans.

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