Lawmakers Face Off On Pentagon Spending Cuts

The battle over sequestration is getting louder, as the defense industry mobilizes to prevent across-the-board cuts to Pentagon spending. Non-defense groups are trying to avoid being drowned out.

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And members of Congress, this week, are headlining rallies meant to inspire public outrage, outrage over potential cuts to Pentagon spending. Military contractors say they could lose a million jobs if Congress goes ahead with across-the-board spending reductions known as sequestration. As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, the fuss is about budget cuts that were never intended to actually happen.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: For months now, House Armed Services Committee chair Buck McKeon has been predicting chaos will result from the $50 billion in defense cuts scheduled for January. The Republican leader's website features ominously scored videos like this one, in which a businesswoman from McKeon's home district in California warns that the sky could fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: To lose contracts of this nature could eradicate the Antelope Valley as we know it today.

ABRAMSON: McKeon's message is that President Obama is to blame for this devastating prospect. Of course, both Republicans and Democrats agreed to let automatic cuts set in, if congressional negotiators could not agree on reductions on their own.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

ABRAMSON: On Monday and Tuesday, three Republican senators visited a series of rallies in areas heavily dependent on defense spending. At their first stop, Senator Lindsay Graham told a crowd in Tampa that a key military base in their town would face a hammer blow.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Bottom line, MacDill Air Force Base is toast if this goes through.

ABRAMSON: Actually, the Pentagon has refused to say exactly what will be cut. But Republicans appear convinced they will gain political advantage from dire prognostications. At the Tampa rally, New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte said only the president can save the day.

SENATOR KELLY AYOTTE: I'm very concerned that we won't be able to resolve it without presidential leadership. And you would think that that's the foremost responsibility to the American people of being commander-in-chief.

ABRAMSON: But not everyone is buying the idea that defense spending cannot be touched. Gene Jones of Sarasota, Florida, a member of Florida Veterans for Common Sense, came to the rally to call for lower Pentagon spending.

GENE JONES: We're weakening America. This wasted, extravagant defense budget is weakening America. We need to get that under control.

ABRAMSON: At another anti-sequestration event just outside Washington, D.C., a few hundred defense workers gathered in a hotel ballroom and donned bright red T-shirts that said: Two million jobs are at risk. That's one estimate of how many defense and non-defense jobs could fall to across-the-board cuts.

David Drabkin, who works for Northrop Grumman, stood out in his pink seersucker suit.

DAVID DRABKIN: To let a salami slice cut take effect in January, it's going to be hard on everybody.

ABRAMSON: Drabkin says he is worried about his industry. But he says he's more concerned about the uncertainty created by the threat of cuts. Congress, he says, has to agree on a budget plan, that's their job.

DRABKIN: When I was a fed, before I retired, if I didn't get my budget in on time, they'd have fired me. I wouldn't have gotten paid.

ABRAMSON: Defense contractors say federal law requires they send layoff notices out by November, if Congress hasn't come up with a solution. This week, the Department of Labor said, no you don't - the situation is too uncertain for such warnings.

Democratic congressman Adam Smith's answer to the mess: Turn the sequestration switch off.

REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SMITH: Yes, we still need to deal with the deficit. But obviously this manner of dealing with it isn't going to work. We shouldn't hold the entire economy hostage to a plan that's not working.

ABRAMSON: The other solution, both sides could come up with another way to reduce the deficit.

Today, the standoff continues. At a House hearing, Armed Services chairman Buck McKeon faces off with top administration officials, to hear about their plans for dealing or not dealing with sequestration.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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