GOP: Cut federal workers, not defense

A group of Republican senators introduced legislation Thursday that would wipe out automatic defense cuts by reducing the federal workforce by 5 percent and extending a freeze on federal pay through June 2014.

The GOP senators, led by Arizona’s Jon Kyl and John McCain, wish to prevent $500 billion in automatic defense cuts set to begin in January 2013. 

Their bill would eliminate the first year of the cuts by hiring back two workers for every three who leave. It would save $127 billion in all, with $110 billion covering automatic cuts to defense and non-defense spending scheduled for 2013 under last summer’s deal to raise the debt ceiling. 

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Republicans have zeroed in on the federal workforce as a way to reduce deficits. On Wednesday, the House approved extending a federal pay freeze in a bipartisan vote. Seventy-three Democrats voted with the GOP. 

The GOP senators said their legislation is essential because the military would be decimated if the $500 billion in sequestration cuts were to take effect in January 2013 on top of an already planned $487 billion reduction. 

Sequestration refers to automatic spending cuts of $1.2 trillion — half of which targets military budgets — that were triggered by the failure of the deficit-reduction supercommittee. 

“Right now the secretary of Defense has to start planning on what he’s going to do with the nation’s defense next year,” McCain said at a news conference announcing the plan. “If we wait until the end of this year with this kind of cut staring him in the face, it would be so disruptive that it would endanger our national security.” 

Democrats, however, said the plan was a non-starter. They argued that any deficit-reduction package that replaces the defense cuts must include tax increases, something Republicans have said they will not accept. 

The ideological divide remains as big as it was when sequestration was enacted, leaving the new legislation facing an uphill climb even as the Republican senators stressed how devastating the cuts would be to the military. 

Republicans announced their plan on Groundhog Day, and the news conference was a similar to the movie of the same name, in which the character played by Bill Murray must live the same day over and over again. 

Thursday’s news conference was the third that Republican House and Senate Armed Services committee leaders have held in the past two months on sequestration alternatives. Each time, Republicans have vowed to undo the cuts, and each time Democrats quickly panned the plans. 

The plan from the GOP senators is similar to one introduced last month by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who called for reducing the federal workforce by 10 percent to undo the first year of the automatic cuts.

McCain called out President Obama on Thursday, urging him to put forward his own plan to change sequestration. 

“We’re not saying this is engraved in golden tablets,” McCain said. “We are saying this is our proposal. The president has no proposal. The secretary of Defense says that it would be catastrophic and devastating, and yet his president is basically silent.” 

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday that it’s Congress that’s compelled to act to change sequestration, which he called “bad policy for a reason.” 

“The whole idea of the sequester was to design it in a way so that nobody, Democrats or Republicans, wanted it to become fact,” Carney said. “This president will obviously sign into law a balanced approach to making that deficit reduction happen.” 

Quickly after the Republican senators announced their plan, Democrats decried the proposal, just as they did when McKeon released his bill in December. 

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

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said 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. 

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) predicted last week that the threat of the full sequestration cuts would cause the GOP to cave on opposing tax increases. 

McCain said the legislation does not have any Democratic co-sponsors, “nor have we sought any” at this point. McKeon’s legislation also has yet to attract Democratic support. 

Still, the Republican senators said Thursday they think they can attract Democrats to their side. 

“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.”

This story was originally posted at 5:20 p.m. and has been updated.