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Defense Cuts Could Mean Trouble at Home for Lawmakers

Politico - June 3, 2012, By Seung Min Kim

Congress has already been warned that the automatic spending cuts early next year — especially from the Pentagon — could help trigger another recession.

But the $1.2 trillion ax to defense and domestic spending might trigger something else: an election loss.

From the Navy shipyards of Norfolk to the aerospace industry hangars in Southern California — and in the corporate towers of defense contractors inside the Beltway — the so-called sequester is not only an urgent policy matter but could be a political liability for lawmakers from defense-heavy districts. And Republicans who want to kill the sequester and spare the Pentagon are already targeting Democrats, who insist that new tax revenues must be part of any deal to roll back military cuts.

“Any member of Congress that would defend the sequester and not come up with an alternative or [insist on revenues], I think that in a competitive district, that they would be open to attack to cutting defense too deeply,” said Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), who served in the first Gulf War and the Iraq War.

One study showed that deep defense cuts would cost 1 million jobs nationwide — hitting heavily in California, Virginia and Florida.

In the tossup race between Democratic Rep. Mark Critz and Republican Keith Rothfus in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District, Rothfus has hammered Critz for rejecting GOP proposals to shield the Pentagon cuts — even though the Democrats also have a major problem with the package of cuts, which hits domestic safety net programs.

The looming sequester leaves Democrats stuck between honoring last year’s debt limit deal, which put the defense cuts trigger into law, and protecting jobs in their home district. The projected military cuts have made for easy targeting by Republican operatives, who are trying to paint some Democrats as being ready to kill stable defense-oriented jobs.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has slammed Democratic lawmakers like Reps. Larry Kissell of North Carolina, Bill Owens of New York and John Barrow of Georgia for rejecting plans to save cuts from hitting Forts Bragg, Drum and Gordon.

“These Democrats are already on record opposing common-sense reforms that would avoid these devastating cuts to local jobs and America’s military,” said Paul Lindsay, an NRCC spokesman.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) agrees with Republicans on at least this point: that these cuts would be cataclysmic.

Scott, whose district includes the defense-rich Hampton Roads area, spoke of a recent standing-room-only meeting at which local officials and defense contractors lined up to detail the consequences to municipal coffers and local manufacturers that build aircraft carriers and submarines.

“The defense sequester would be so devastating to the defense of our nation that it is hard to imagine thoughtful legislators actually allowing it to happen,” said Scott, who wants to erase the sequester by ending some Bush-era tax cuts. “We’ve heard from the Department of Defense and certainly anybody from Hampton Roads. It is just absolutely absurd to allow that to happen because of what it does to our national defense and to our local economy.”

The jobs impact is clear. An October 2011 study from George Mason University showed that the planned cuts, combined with defense reductions already set to go into place, would cause more than 1 million job losses across the nation in just one year. California, where a number of congressional seats are in play, would lose the most jobs of any state, with 125,800 in projected job losses, according to the analysis.

Another vulnerable state is Virginia, a key swing state, where 122,800 jobs could disappear. Florida would be hit hard with nearly 40,000 in job losses, the study said. The majority of jobs lost would come not directly from defense but from businesses that are reliant on the robust military presence in these local communities — think mom and pop restaurants, beauty shops and convenience stores.

Escalating the frustration among Republicans and the defense industry is that so far, the Defense Department has given no public details on how it would implement the spending cuts if they went into effect on Jan. 2, 2013.

“That’s the problem. We don’t know,” said Cord Sterling, the vice president for legislative affairs of the Aerospace Industries Association. “People don’t know where it would be safe to make investments.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has taken an increasingly tough stance on the sequester to try to force the Republicans to cave on taxes. In a recent interview with POLITICO, Reid warned that the automatic cuts would go into effect unless the GOP made some concessions on revenue.

“I am not going to back off the sequestration,” Reid said in the interview. “That’s the law we passed. We did it because it wouldn’t make things easy for us. It made it so we would have to do something. And if we didn’t, these cuts would kick in.”

Rank-and-file Democrats in defense-heavy areas are sounding the alarm and pushing Capitol Hill to move more quickly on acting on the sequester, trying to do away with the conventional wisdom that lawmakers will resolve it in the lame-duck session once the election dust settles.

Democratic Rep. Joe Courtney, who represents a district in Connecticut, where the economy is reliant on defense contractors, said companies back home were already wrestling over potential layoffs.

“Bottom line is, a deficit reduction plan that we can agree on, the sooner the better,” Courtney added.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who represents defense-heavy Northern Virginia, said some Democrats could “potentially” be in a tough spot politically since party leaders weren’t budging on sequestration. In his district, the impact “certainly … would not be trivial.”

But “Republicans have been so heavy-handed, so extreme in recklessly disinvesting on the domestic side of the ledger that it’s going to be awfully hard to paint Democrats who balk at that as somehow lily-livered or weak on national security or national defense,” Connolly added.

“In talking to groups [in Connecticut], all I can tell you is that people who work closely with the defense industry, [what] they’ve explicitly said to me is that revenue has to be a part of a deficit-reduction plan,” Courtney said.

Democrats have also accused the GOP of blowing apart the August 2011 debt deal — backed by large swaths of the Republican Party in both the House and the Senate — that created the trigger mechanism. In the House, 174 Republicans supported it, while in the Senate, 28 Republicans voted for it.

But partisan politics aside, the threat still looms. The peril of the impending job cuts is so severe that one defense hawk — Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) — has embarked on a series of so-called listening sessions nationwide to talk about the impact of the potential cuts. The lawmaker has hit Chesapeake, Va., and Pensacola, Fla., and has more dates planned in Illinois, California, Montana, Arkansas and Missouri.

Meanwhile, the defense industry is increasingly fretting over inaction on Capitol Hill. Sterling, of the Aerospace Industries Association, noted that the supercommittee was supposed to resolve the problem of the automatic cuts — but didn’t.

“We’re very hopeful, I’m going to say optimistic, but … this is just something that given the failure of the supercommittee, you can’t really rely upon the statements” from Congress, he said.

© 2012 POLITICO LLC

 

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