By Jeremy Herb - 07/14/12 10:00 AM EDT
Republicans are ramping up their attacks on President Obama over cuts to the military in a concerted effort to blame him for the looming $500 billion reduction in defense spending.
Republicans opened up a two-pronged offensive against the White House on Friday, with presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney accusing the president of allowing the defense cuts to happen despite the negative impact on jobs and the economy. GOP congressional leaders piled on, chiding Obama for “ignoring” the issue.
House Republicans are likely to continue to criticize Obama over the defense cuts next week, with two bills on the House floor and a high-profile hearing on sequestration that will feature top defense executives.
The cuts could also become a factor in the battle between the Romney and Obama campaigns for the military vote. Both campaigns have made an active push for veterans, and several states with a heavy defense presence are up for grabs in November.
Republicans are seeking to put the blame for sequestration — the roughly $500 billion, 10-year cut to defense and non-defense spending set to hit in January — squarely on Obama’s shoulders.
“The sequester will have a significant impact on our national security and other domestic programs — such as medical research and special education — and yet the White House is now holding our troops and other important programs hostage in order to foist tax increases on small businesses,” the four top GOP congressional leaders wrote in a letter to Obama Friday.
The White House, however, says it’s up to Congress to reverse the automatic cuts. Democrats are quick to point out that many Republicans in the House and Senate voted for the Budget Control Act last year that put the sequester in place.
“What’s needed is action to avoid the sequester by Congress by passing balanced deficit reduction along the lines that the President has put forward,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said at a press briefing this week.
The flurry of political statements and responses on the Pentagon cuts was spurred by Obama’s campaign stop on Friday in Virginia, a key battleground state with a number of military bases and contractors.
Ahead of Obama’s visit, the Romney campaign released a series of statements attacking the president on defense from Virginia surrogates, including Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R).
“The president has put our defense budget on course for radical cuts that even his own secretary of defense says will be ‘devastating’ to U.S. national security,” McDonnell said in a statement Thursday.
Romney pitched in with an “open letter” to Obama that ran in The Virginian-Pilot.
“Your insistence on slashing our military to pay the tab for your irresponsible spending could see over 200,000 troops forced from service,” he wrote. “It will shut the doors on factories and shipyards that support our warfighters, take a heavy toll on the guard and reserves, and potentially shutter Virginia military bases.”
National security is typically a Republican strength in presidential elections, but this time around Obama has a list of accomplishments to run on, while Romney lacks foreign policy experience.
Obama touted his military record at his campaign stop Friday in Virginia Beach.
“In 2008, I promised we would end the war in Iraq, and we’ve ended it,” he said. “We are transitioning in Afghanistan and beginning to bring our troops home from that theater. We have gone after al Qaeda, decimated their leadership ranks, taken out Osama bin Laden.”
While the defense cuts are part of the national security debate, they also play into the larger fight in Washington and on the campaign trail over taxes.
The sequestration cuts are only one part of a fiscal cliff that Congress is headed toward at the end of the year, when the George W. Bush-era tax rates are set to expire and another increase in the debt ceiling might be needed.
Most Democrats and Republicans want to undo the cuts to sequestration, which were enacted as a punitive measure in the Budget Control Act, but the two sides have been unable to find alternate deficit reduction.
Democrats, including Obama, say that tax increases must be part of any deal to avert the cuts, and say Republicans’ refusal to raise taxes is the reason that sequestration hasn’t been fixed.
Republicans counter that Democrats have been unwilling to put mandatory spending on the table.
Some defense hawks in Congress, such as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), have said they’re open to talking about new revenue, although not the increased taxes on upper-income earners that Democrats want.
But the senators have insisted that Obama needs to get involved in the discussions before the election, a call that Republican leadership joined in Friday while knocking Obama.
House Republicans say that they have acted to fix the sequester with the House-passed budget, which replaces the first year of defense cuts with trims elsewhere.
“Instead of ignoring the need to address this critical issue, we would respectfully request that you and your senior staff engage constructively with both parties to find common ground,” wrote House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).
While defense-minded lawmakers in both parties say that they want sequestration to be dealt with before the election, it’s likely to remain a campaign issue through November, with Republicans hitting the president for cutting defense and Obama using them to run against a do-nothing Congress.
One wild card could be the defense industry, however, which could try to force the issue by issuing layoff notices and making the sequestration cuts about an issue both sides are campaigning on: jobs.