Monday, July 30, 2012

GOP Senators get some pushback from audience in Tampa on defense cuts

Posted By on Mon, Jul 30, 2012 at 11:54 AM

John McCain & Kelly Ayotte
  • John McCain & Kelly Ayotte
"MacDill Air Force Base is toast if this goes through."

That chilling message came via South Carolina Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham at a town hall meeting in Tampa regarding major defense budget cuts that could happen by the end of year if Congress doesn't act before then.

Graham and fellow GOP Senators John McCain and Kelly Ayotte spoke at the CAMLS facility on Monday morning in the first of several stops over the next couple of days. They're trying to take their case to the public regarding what is known as sequestration, where $1.1 trillion of government spending, $500 billion of it in defense, is scheduled to automatically take place on January 1, 2013, unless Congress acts otherwise.

The reason that Congress created such a situation goes back to a year ago when what has become known as the "debt-ceiling debacle" took place. Congress wrote into law that if a so-called super committee of legislators from both sides of the aisle couldn't come up with a plan to reduce the deficit, such automatic cuts would happen at the end of this year.

But the GOP Senators don't want to wait until the lame-duck session after the election to work on this.

"Lame duck sessions are a disaster. They're a disaster," McCain repeated as he began the meeting.

New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte said that everything should be on the table when it comes to such cuts, but says that defense spending has already been reduced by $487 million, and shouldn't have to take too much more of the load. She also said that right now defense spending is only at 4.7 percent of GDP, whereas traditionally it's around 7 percent.

There's no question that if sequestration goes through, a lot of jobs will be lost, including those in the Tampa Bay area. Last week a senior Pentagon official testified on Capitol Hill for the possible reduction of up to 10 percent of the 800,000-strong civilian workforce.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham repeated the conventional wisdom heard in Washington that such cuts couldn't possibly happen. But he says with the intransigence between Republicans Democrats in Washington, it's quite possible this time it could.

One of the biggest issues that divide the two parties when it comes to deficit reduction is regarding raising taxes, which has become anathema in the modern Republican party playbook. But Graham said that he and his two colleagues are going outside of that box and are willing to put revenue on the table, as long as Democrats meet them halfway when it comes to cutting entitlement spending.

Graham said he believes not in adjusting the tax rate code, but in eliminating tax deductions and exemptions (though not specifying which ones), as well as increasing fees "on deals that should have been adjusted, referring to "sweetheart deals giving away land and drilling rights."

But although undoubtedly most of the crowd, which included plenty of local officials (such as Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe and state legislators like Jamie Grant and Rich Gloriso), Chamber of Commerce members and those who work in the defense industry appeared to be in strong agreement with the sentiments being expressed on the stage, not everybody in the audience was.

Gene Jones is with Florida Veterans for Common Sense. He called the defense department budget "bloated" and said it lacked accountability when it came to spending. A couple of minutes into his commentary he began lambasting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, setting off a buzz among several people in the audience who looked uncomfortable hearing such criticism.

After almost three minutes of speaking, McCain cut him off and said he relies on officials in the military who tell him that the department cannot withstand $500 billion more in cuts. "We trust their judgement, and their judgement unanimously is that these cuts would be devastating....there will be more reductions, but we can't do it with a meat-axe."

Another member of the public, Eric Papp, said it appeared like the Senators were into simply preaching to the choir, noting that they were no Democrats on the panel. "I think the only way we can move forward is to get a little healthy conflict," he said.

"If we're just going to get in a room together and just shake our heads and say 'yeah, we agree, we agree, there's 80 percent of us.' Then nothing gets done."

McCain appeared to be slightly perturbed by the question, saying the fact that other Democrats who were invited to join the trio couldn't because of either scheduling conflicts or just didn't want to show up didn't mean that advocating against the defense cuts was a meaningless gesture.

"Our job is to arouse the American people, whether there Republicans or Democrats, Libertarians or vegetarians, it doesn't matter," to some laughs.

In fact Florida U.S. Senator Bill Nelson apparently was asked but could not appear at the meeting. But his office has been busy the past few days letting reporters know that he is in lockstep with McCain and company in terms of arguing against the possible cuts to defense.

“Thank you for your efforts to warn residents in some of the states with high military employment about how automatic spending cuts at the Pentagon could harm their communities," Nelson wrote in a letter to the three Senators that was made public.

With a tight race upcoming with Republican Senate challenger Connie Mack IV, no doubt Nelson doesn't want to get on the wrong side of that debate.

In concluding, McCain urged audience members to write letters to the editor, as well as speak with their local mayors and/or city councils to create a grass roots effort to stop sequestration.

"Even you liberal democrats, be nice to Republicans when they come to town," he said.

The GOP Senators will next go on to North Carolina, Virginia and New Hampshire in the coming days to hold similar town hall meetings.

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