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Automatic budget cuts known as sequestration could cut billions from the Defense budget if Congress can't agree how to lower the deficit before the end of the year. But so far, major defense companies have decided not to send out layoff notices in the event those cuts do take place. The White House asked the industry to hold off on those notices. That'll spare the industry and the White House some embarrassment. But it's led to charges that the White House overstepped its role. Here's NPR's Larry Abramson with more.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: EADS, the aerospace giant that includes Airbus, says it remains very worried about automatic cuts that could wipe out around 10 percent of the Defense budget on January 2nd. But spokesman Guy Hicks says the company now believes it'll have some time to trim its workforce.

GUY HICKS: We assume because it's the law that it will occur. But the implementation of it, you know, is not necessarily going to take place on the second of January. It's likely to unfold over a longer period of time, which gives us the latitude to wait.

ABRAMSON: To wait and not send out layoffs notices for now. Lockheed Martin came to the same conclusion. Those decisions followed reassurances from the White House that these cuts are not unavoidable. After all, Congress can decide at any time to come to a new budget agreement and toss out those automatic cuts known as sequestration. In addition, some defense jobs rely on ongoing contracts that won't be affected - not right away, anyway. For those reasons, the White House said the defense industry doesn't have to send out notices under a law called the WARN Act, which was supposed to help workers prepare for layoffs. Dan Gordon used to work in the Obama White House and now teaches at George Washington University.

DAN GORDON: Even if it begins on January 2nd, there will be no plants closed. There will be no massive layoffs on January 3rd or January 4th or January 5th or January 6th.

ABRAMSON: But Republicans say the White House is just trying to head off embarrassing layoff announcements right before the election. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Fox News the White House is dodging the law.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: And it is a mini-coup. You're having the executive branch unilaterally telling the private sector to ignore a Congressional statute.

ABRAMSON: The White House went a step further by promising to cover any legal costs industry might face. Workers can sue if they're fired without proper notice. Republican Senator John McCain said he will block the use of government funds for that purpose. Of course, that only comes into play after the election. In the meantime, workers are caught in the middle.

THOMAS BUFFENBARGER: Nobody's talked to workers or their unions about the impact of this.

ABRAMSON: Thomas Buffenbarger is president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. He says the White House took care of management's concerns but ignored workers who still might lose their jobs next year. Buffenbarger says the White House is trying to manipulate his members.

BUFFENBARGER: With a pink slip in one hand and their ballot in the other, how do you think they're going to vote? Well, I would suspect they would vote against whoever the incumbent is, Republican or Democrat.

ABRAMSON: The truth is defense workers know full well that next year may be a rough one. Many have attended rallies, urging Congress to stop the automatic cuts from happening. The question is who will get the blame for the whole budget mess, because as GWU's Dan Gordon says, this battle is not about some obscure law that requires layoff notices.

GORDON: The WARN Act is, in my humble opinion, a red herring. The real issue: reaching budget agreements so that we don't have sequestration.

ABRAMSON: Both parties still appear very far from any agreement to avoid those automatic budget cuts, so the issue hasn't gone away. It will return during what promises to be a raucous lame duck session after the election. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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