As promised, a group of senior Republican senators influential on defense policy unveiled a bill Thursday to divert a portion of the $1.2 trillion in mandatory cuts set to take effect in January 2013.
“I believe the cuts are a threat to national security,” said lead bill sponsor John McCain of Arizona, top Republican on the Armed Services Committee.
The “Down Payment to Protect National Security Act,” whose ultimate goal is to unwind the full reduction, achieves $127 billion in savings over 10 years, to cover $110 billion in scheduled cuts to defense and certain domestic programs in 2013 alone, by continuing a freeze on federal government worker pay as well as by slicing the workforce by 5 percent through attrition.
The $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts, falling equally on defense and domestic budgets, came about as part of a bipartisan compromise to raise the nation’s debt ceiling. The failure of the deficit reduction super committee triggered the cuts, called a “sequestration.”
“You don’t eat a steak in one bite. You try to do it in bite size pieces,” said the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, Jon Kyl of Arizona, who worked with McCain and four other GOP senators on the plan, which would buy time for lawmakers to find the remaining offsets, an Olympic-caliber task which members have, to date, failed.
The measure also contains a national emergency and national security waiver.
Some Democrats will, no doubt, find themselves in a difficult position in this crucial election year in which control of the Senate and White House hangs in the balance.
While President Obama has threatened to veto any effort to ditch the so-called sequester, saying there would be “no easy off ramps here,” some red-state Democrats may be inclined to support the GOP effort.
Still, a battle is expected. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., blasted the GOP effort Thursday, telling reporters, “I believe an agreement is an agreement. A handshake – a handshake…They should keep their word.”
And though Reid’s lieutenant, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, did not close the door to a replacement of the scheduled cuts, the senator, who also chairs the Democrats’ campaign committee, made clear that she intends to bring a popular Democratic political message to the fight.
“This plan isn’t about avoiding sequestration, it’s about avoiding having millionaires pay their fair share,” Murray accysed in a statement. “If Republicans are serious about replacing the automatic spending cuts then they are going to need to work with Democrats to find an equal amount of balanced deficit reduction that doesn’t simply increase the pain for the middle class.”
And while McCain assured that the group is open to change, saying, “We’re not saying engraved in golden tablets,” the senator and his colleagues made clear that a tax on those Americans making more than $1 million is a non-starter.
Republicans, and some Democrats, became particularly alarmed when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned last year that deeper cuts, beyond the department’s current mandate to axe $487 billion from this year’s books, would “hollow the force,” leaving the nation vulnerable to attack.
A furious Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., promised afterward to introduce a bill to replace the defense cuts.
The measure, which Graham, an Air Force Reserves lawyer, helped write, prohibits federal agencies from hiring “more than two people” for every three that leave the workforce.
The current pay freeze, put in place by President Obama, is set to expire at the end of 2012, but under the McCain-Kyl plan would be extended to June 30, 2014.
The measure is similar to one introduced in the House by Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, only that bill calls for a 10 percent federal workforce reduction, something Democrats adamantly oppose.
“The mission ought to define the budget, not the budget define the mission,” Cornyn told reporters.
“If Congress doesn’t get this right, instead of firing the soldiers, you should fire us,” Graham said.