One year after Congress approved a controversial plan to extend the nation’s debt ceiling, Republicans are stepping up their campaign to repeal a major part of the law.
They’re worried about a part of the measure called “sequester,” a requirement that spending for some federal government programs be slashed starting in 2013 once a “supercommittee” of Congress failed to compromise on $1 trillion in deficit reductions last fall.
The law requires that more than $100 billion be sequestered — or automatically cut — in January.
GOP officeholders and candidates, however, aren’t worried about all the automatic reductions. They’re concerned that more than $50 billion in cuts will come from the Defense Department, saying that will threaten national security and tens of thousands of defense-related private-sector jobs.
They’re pushing to rewrite that part of the law.
“It was bad policy to put our national defense at risk, all dependent on this supercommittee,” U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Republican, said after a campaign stop in Belton, part of her 4th District. “It will hollow out our military.”
But Democrats have resisted any significant changes to the defense sequester requirements. They contend that Republicans can restore the cuts to defense and other programs if they are willing to consider tax increases on wealthier Americans to battle the deficit.
And they argue that substantial cuts to other government services shouldn’t go forward while defense spending is restored.
“I unequivocally support well-examined and necessary funding for the military,” said U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. “We must not, however, haphazardly slash programs that assist, for instance, education and children living in poverty.”
The debate over the defense sequester is spreading nationally.
House Republicans and White House officials squabbled angrily over it in a tense hearing Wednesday, each side blaming the other for the looming cuts.
Last week, three GOP senators — led by 2008 presidential candidate John McCain — traveled along the East Coast urging voters to help them overturn the automatic defense cuts next year.
Senate Democrats have responded by deferring votes on lifting the sequester. The spending cuts are supposed to hurt, they say, as an incentive to force compromise on deficit reduction.
The issue will be hotly debated in campaigns this fall, in part because the sequester could cost civilian jobs related to Defense Department spending.
More than 65,000 civilian jobs in Missouri are tied to the aerospace and defense industries, according to a 2011 study by Deloitte, an auditing firm. State officials think the number is even higher.
The government spent more than $9 billion on defense-related contracts in Missouri in 2011, according to a database at GovernmentContractsWon.com.
Aerospace and defense-related employment in Kansas affects more than 100,000 people, the Deloitte study found, largely because of Wichita’s role in aviation.
Defense employment creates “a lot of jobs,” agreed U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, adding that both political parties share blame for the budget impasse.
The House Armed Services Committee, which counts Hartzler as a member, says Missouri would be among the 10 states hardest hit by a full defense sequester. Overall, the committee’s Republicans claim, the sequester could cost 1 million private-sector jobs, adding to the nation’s stubbornly high unemployment rate.
Yet not all of those jobs would be lost in a defense sequester. And Democrats claim the Pentagon can absorb some reductions, particularly as wars wind down.
They also point out that some Republicans now complaining about the sequester actually voted for the debt ceiling bill that put the measure into the law.
“Republican leaders have also ignored both their own role in creating sequestration in the first place and the fact that their stubborn resistance to any increase in revenues is the biggest reason why sequestration is even a possibility,” House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington state Democrat, wrote in June.
Some scoff at Republican claims that Pentagon cuts will cost civilian employment. GOP members routinely say federal spending can’t create jobs, they argue, but change their views when defense cuts are involved.
Even Hartzler paused when asked to explain why stimulus spending doesn’t create jobs while defense spending does.
“I wasn’t there when they did the stimulus package,” she said. “I’m just supporting our national defense, making sure these jobs aren’t lost.”
Hartzler voted against the debt ceiling bill that created the sequester process, as did Cleaver.
Some Democrats, worried about civilian job cuts, are treading lightly when the defense sequester issue is raised. Hartzler’s Democratic opponent in the 4th Congressional District, Teresa Hensley, criticized the budget process but did not say the defense sequester should go forward as planned.
“Strong military bases are crucial to jobs and the economy in the 4th District, so I support taking steps to make sure they have the resources they need,” she said. “But we can’t afford to allow Congress to continue its reckless handling of important issues like this.”
Whiteman Air Force Base is a major presence, and employer, in Missouri’s 4th District.
One defense contractor has threatened to send required notices of potential layoffs just before the November election, blaming the sequester. And Republicans have pressed legislation that would force the White House to outline where the cuts will come next year if the sequester is enacted, Blunt said.
“The White House is telling people to keep the effects of these cuts secret,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week.
The administration, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, has said it opposes the sequester and the defense cuts because of their potential effect on the military.
But White House officials have insisted the only way to avoid the cuts is to raise taxes on the wealthy and close corporate loopholes, something Republicans have so far rejected.
“Sequestration must be prevented,” said Democrats on the Armed Services Committee. “We cannot separate out defense and protect it from cuts while devastating other important programs. If Republicans put revenue on the table, the solution is simple.”