Defense lawmakers plead for bipartisan solution to avert sequestration cuts

Defense lawmakers from both sides of the aisle on Monday pleaded with congressional leaders to put party politics aside and come together to reach a viable solution to avoid devastating national security budget cuts under sequestration. 

In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), several members of the Senate Armed Services Committee reiterated their commitment to forging an alternative sequestration plan. 

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"We are committed to working together to help forge a balanced bipartisan deficit reduction package to avoid damage to our national security, important domestic priorities, and our economy," Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), the committee's chairman and ranking member, wrote in the letter. 

Panel members Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) also signed the letter to Senate leaders. 

Earlier this year, Ayotte floated the idea of creating a series of House-Senate working groups as a bicameral and bipartisan way to help tackle the sequestration issue. 

Lawmakers have a little over three months to come up with a plan to stave off roughly $1.2 billion in automatic budget cuts to domestic and national security funding under the sequestration plan, part of last year's debt-ceiling deal reached between the White House and Capitol Hill. 

The automatic cuts were intended to spur Congress to come up with its own plan to trim $1.2 billion from the national deficit. But the failure of a congressional supercommittee to reach a compromise on the deficit earlier this year triggered the automatic cuts. 

The more than $500 billion in across-the-board reductions for national security, scheduled to hit in January, will almost exclusively be pulled from the Pentagon's coffers.   

The budget cuts under sequestration "will endanger the lives of America's service members, threaten our national security, and impact vital domestic programs and services," according to the letter. 

Avoiding the cuts "will require real compromise," the senators wrote, adding that "all ideas should be put on the table" and forwarded to the White House's Office of Management and Budget, as well as the Joint Committee on Taxation for review. 

"We do not believe that Congress and the president can afford to wait until January to begin to develop a short term or long term sequestration alternative," they added.

While time is running out for Congress to come up with an alternative sequestration plan, lawmakers remain deeply divided along partisan lines on what the best course of action should be.

Congressional Democrats have argued for months that tax increases must be part of any realistic strategy to generate the $1.2 billion needed to spare the Defense Department and other government agencies from sequestration. 

In May, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) led a block of House Democrats in proposing an alternative sequester plan implementing cuts to government farm subsidies and ending federal payouts to oil companies as a way to pay for the Pentagon's portion of sequestration. 

Republicans in both chambers, however, dug in against the Van Hollen plan and have balked against revenue increases in general, arguing that additional cuts to social welfare programs could be enough to offset the defense and non-defense cuts under sequestration. 

House GOP members rammed through their own sequestration plan in May, calling for sharp cuts to the federal food stamps and national school lunch programs, and limits on Medicaid payments to pay for the defense budget cuts. 

That same month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the House GOP plan was a recipe for "confrontation [and] gridlock" that will only make automatic defense cuts more likely to happen. 

The House approved the measure by a party-line vote of 233-183, but Reid has refused to let the proposal come to the Senate floor for a vote. 

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