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The Defense Department and the defense industry are playing, well, defense. That's after the supercommittee ran into a dead end this week. With that, mandatory cuts are supposed to kick in about a year from now, half of which would come from the Pentagon. In a moment, we'll hear why some are arguing the Pentagon will be just fine with less money. But first, as NPR's Peter Overby explains, no interest group stands to lose more than the defense industry.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The supercommittee's failure puts in motion automatic budget cuts for the Pentagon, $600 billion worth. The process is called sequestration. And so on Monday, even before the supercommittee flamed out, defense workers in York, Pennsylvania, rallied to protect the Pentagon budget and perhaps their own jobs. The local congressman, Republican Todd Platts, spoke to the workers.
REPRESENTATIVE TODD PLATTS: When you get on this assembly line and you start building these amazing products that save the lives of courageous Americans in harm's way, you do it as Americans.
OVERBY: And example of that Platts said Republicans and Democrats in Congress should follow. The York factory is owned by BAE Systems. Mostly, it makes and refits Bradley Fighting Vehicles and the mine-resistant trucks called MRAPs.
The rally in York wasn't spontaneous. It was part of a lobbying campaign run by the Aerospace Industries Association, the trade group for the big defense contractors. The association's president, Marion Blakey, addressed the factory workers. Later, she said the campaign is called Second to None because America should always give its military the best.
MARION BLAKEY: Night-vision goggles, unmanned systems, the helicopter that went in to take out Osama bin Laden, all that is the result of real R and D.
OVERBY: Research and development that will be crippled by the coming cuts, she said, unless Congress is persuaded to act.
BLAKEY: You know, there's no substitute for grassroots activity, letter writing, meeting with members, going to rallies. And that is what the defense industry is initiating with the Second to None campaign.
OVERBY: If the automatic cuts take effect, the industry predicts 1 million jobs lost and ground forces shrunk to pre-World War II levels. Others are skeptical.
STAN COLLENDER: These contractors just don't want their pipelines reduced or the number of copies of weapons reduced so that their profits stay high.
OVERBY: Stan Collender is a Washington analyst with long experience dissecting budgets and lobbying campaigns.
COLLENDER: Certainly, if there's any kind of a military threat to the country between now and when the cuts would take place, they will use that as reasoning not to let these cuts take effect.
OVERBY: But it's not even clear that the defense contractors know how to run this kind of broad grassroots effort. Michael Herson is president of the lobbying firm American Defense International. It counts some well-known contractors among its clients. Herson says the industry has a long way to go before it can match the clout of the seniors' lobby, AARP.
MICHAEL HERSON: If you turn on the TV and you see a commercial that's paid for by AARP, it's meant to scare you. That, hey, we can't cut Social Security and Medicare because it's going to hurt seniors, and they vote.
OVERBY: And he says that for years now, defense contractors have only worried about their own products, their pet rocks, he says.
HERSON: The defense industry does not have a history of working together to lobby for what we call the top line, you know, how much we can spend on defense. They have a history of working to protect their pet rocks.
OVERBY: The budget timetable could work against the industry, as well. Sequestration isn't due to start until 2013, but Herson points out that planning for the 2013 budget starts this coming February. If the automatic cuts get written into the early drafts, it may be tough to undo them. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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