GOP hawks face vigorous fight to avert billions in automatic Defense cuts

Pro-military Republican senators face an uphill battle in their effort to replace $600 billion in Defense Department cuts with other reductions to federal spending.

Senate GOP Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Armed Services Committee ranking member John McCain (Ariz.) are leading the push to replace the cuts, driven by worries that they would hobble the U.S. military.

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The $600 billion reduction would be “impossible to achieve without harming our national security in ways that would simply be unacceptable,” Kyl said. “There is other discretionary spending that also would be hit hard across the board.”

To avoid a “salami-slice” budget-trimming approach taking effect in January 2013 through a process called sequestration, a group led by McCain and Kyl intends to craft legislation that would achieve $1.2 trillion in Defense and domestic cuts in “an easier” and “sensible” way, Kyl told reporters.

They envision wiping out the $600 billion in Defense cuts with an equal amount of cuts from other areas of the federal budget.

But in a series of interviews Wednesday, Democratic members of all political stripes made clear they would only support a bill to change the sequestered cuts that includes new federal revenues.

Even several pro-military Democrats who oppose the deep Defense cuts said a replacement package must include new revenue.

“The only way to avoid sequestration is to strike a deal that includes new revenues, cuts spending and reduces the deficit by the required $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years,” House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said in a statement to The Hill. “Simply sparing one portion of the budget at the expense of another important portion of the budget is a short-sighted and imprudent approach that does not appreciate the size and scope of our problem — and it would merely delay or avoid addressing our budget challenges.”

Another House Armed Services Committee member, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), said he “doubts a majority of Democrats would be in favor of it because it doesn’t raise new revenues — so it’s not fair and balanced.”

Two leading hawkish Democrats, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (Mich.) and House Appropriations Committee ranking member Norm Dicks (Wash.), told The Hill last week that they think any sequestration-replacement package has to include new revenues to pass Congress.

“I hope you can find a way to undo it that includes revenues, because that’s the only practical way to undo it,” Levin said. He called for “a roughly 50-50 deficit-reduction package which involves both revenues and targeted spending cuts.”

“Revenues should be on the table,” Dicks said. “Revenues will be on the table because the Bush tax cuts expire in December of 2012. This creates kind of the perfect climate for an alternative.”

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said he doubts liberal Democrats would support whatever the McCain-Kyl group produces.

“People on the left believe that excessive military spending is the reason that there’s no money for stuff that people really need,” Ellison said Wednesday.

“I think people who are sort of invested in the Defense spending are so used to getting their way, they don’t know what life is like not getting their way,” Ellison said.

The GOP senators are planning legislation that would cobble together existing federal spending-reduction proposals, as well as “any other good suggestions, frankly,” Kyl said. The group also includes Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).

They said the bill would include ideas from the failed supercommittee and the group led by Vice President Biden, as well as cut ideas floated by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), among others.

Kyl insisted they can reach a $1.2 trillion target without harming such programs as Social Security and Medicare. The GOP whip, citing his work on the supercommittee, insisted the group could trim “hundreds of billions of dollars” through entitlement program reforms without undermining the entitlements.

But, in a repeat of the bipartisan differences that have sunk other deficit-reduction plans this year, the Republicans never mentioned new revenues — only cuts. That will make it hard to get the Democratic support that Graham and Kyl insist will come easily.

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“Any path forward must put everything on the table,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told The Hill on Wednesday. “That includes spending cuts, entitlement reform and new revenues. And there are a lot of ways to accomplish that.”

Coons said rather than simply allowing sequestration to take effect, “I would far rather get a big, bold, bipartisan deal.”

Gordon Adams, who oversaw national security budgeting for the Clinton administration, called the McCain-Kyl plan “pure PR” and said “this is all about electoral politics, not legislating.”

“The bottom line is they can’t even get 60 votes in the Senate,” Adams said. “Why would anyone think that the [Defense] authorizers are going to stop this? They don’t even control their own caucus.

“This exercise will land in the same bonfire” that others have “for the last two years. This issue is not resolvable until the [day] after the first Tuesday in November 2012.”


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