GOP hawks sound alarm on sequester

Two leading Republican defense hawks say they’re worried about the lack of urgency over the sequestration deadline, now just weeks away.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) said they aren’t happy with the lack of action in Washington — from both parties — amid a growing sense among lawmakers that the across-the-board cuts are going to take effect on March 1.

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“Here we are, a month away, and if you believe the Defense Department … They’re going to tell us we’re destroying the finest military in the history of the world at a time we need it most, and everybody is saying, ‘Well, whatever’ — I can’t explain it,” Graham said.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was the latest lawmaker to weigh in pessimistically on the cuts. He predicted on Sunday that sequestration “is going to happen,” and blamed Democrats for rejecting GOP efforts to avert the cuts.

But Graham said both parties are to blame, taking to task Republicans who have argued that sequestration is the best way to achieve deep spending cuts. 

“It happened with both parties. Where did the party of Ronald Reagan go? How could we have agreed with sequestration to begin with?” Graham said. “There seems to be a laissez-faire, lackadaisical attitude — what will be will be — at a time that the world is on fire.”

McCain said he was also concerned about lawmakers in his party rooting for sequestration, but he laid the blame squarely on the White House.

“It requires presidential leadership,” McCain said Tuesday.

While McCain and Graham are still fighting against the cuts, there has been a much more tempered effort from within the industry, Pentagon and Congress as well, since a two-month sequester delay was included as part of a “fiscal-cliff” deal.

One senior defense lobbyist said the industry has adopted a “mood of acceptance” that the across-the-board cuts are going to happen.

The Pentagon has moved to take steps ahead of the March 1 deadline, including a hiring freeze and some spending reductions. Among lawmakers, there’s been no talk of having the kinds of rallies that occurred in 2012 to try and win over public support against the cuts.

“It’s not hyperbole anymore,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “What you are hearing now is some of the no-nonsense detailed planning coming out of the Pentagon.”

Harrison said there is still time for Congress to ramp up its efforts to stop sequestration, noting the tendency of Congress to wait until the last minute for fiscal deadlines.

“But I’m also not sure that we’re going to see a real effort to avoid sequestration,” Harrison said. “I don’t see any signs of urgency to figure out an alternative.”

Sequestration would cut $45 billion from the Pentagon in 2013, and roughly the same amount on the non-defense discretionary side. Over the next decade, defense and non-defense budgets would be reduced by roughly $500 billion each.

The cuts were a major issue in the 2012 presidential race, as the industry pushed studies warning of more than 1 million job losses. But sequestration was little more than an afterthought in the end-of-year fiscal cliff negotiations, and it was removed from the debt-ceiling debate last week after that deadline was pushed back to May.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Monday that the Obama administration opposes letting the “onerous” cuts take effect, but did not indicate any movement was ongoing with leaders in Congress.

“I don’t have any meetings to announce. I don’t have any specifics to provide to you, but we believe that this needs to happen and we look forward to working with Congress to make it happen,” Carney said.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said he is working on the revenue side of the equation, and he has a proposal he’s circulated to committee chairmen and a couple of Republicans for closing tax loopholes.

The Armed Services Committee will be holding a hearing on sequestration in the next few weeks, he said. 

Levin also said he supported changing the law to allow the Pentagon — and domestic federal agencies that would likewise be hit by the cuts — to have a more “flexible” approach for implementing the reductions.

“I know a bunch of Republicans don’t want sequestration to happen for various reasons. Not every Republican says let it hit,” Levin said. “Some of the Democrats say let it hit, too. I think it would be a disaster to let it hit.”

Levin, Graham and McCain all said there were some informal conversations going on in the Senate over sequestration, but those did not appear to reach the level of talks that went on throughout much of 2012.

Most Democrats and Republicans do not want the cuts to happen, but there’s no agreement over how they should be replaced, an obstacle that has hovered over sequestration since the supercommittee failed in 2011.

Harrison said that some Republicans view the across-the-board cuts as preferable to the bipartisan alternative, which would likely include more revenues. Some Democrats, meanwhile, would prefer domestic discretionary cuts to an alternative of cuts to entitlements that would be on the table in a deal.

“Where does that leave you? I think the best hope right now for avoiding sequestration is another delay,” Harrison said, adding that he thought there was a “high likelihood” the cuts would take effect.

One way to address sequestration, he suggested, was to let it occur throughout the month of March, then include a solution with the 2013 budget when the continuing resolution expires March 27.

Levin was asked by reporters Tuesday what odds he would put on the sequester occurring. 

“Probably even,” he said.