By Edward Donga
BU News Service
WASHINGTON—Teaming up with other leading Republicans on the Senate and House Armed Services committees, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte Wednesday introduced legislation to head off so-called “sequestration” – automatic, across-the-board spending cuts to the federal budget slated to kick in March 1.
In place of the $85 billion sequestration scheduled for the current fiscal year, which would involve reductions evenly split between defense and non-defense programs, Ayotte’s bill seeks to achieve equivalent savings by reducing the 2 million member federal workforce by about 10 percent through attrition. Another provision in the bill would freeze the salaries of members of Congress as long as there is the federal budget deficit.
Taking issue with President Obama’s call a day earlier for a “balanced mix” of spending cuts and tax reform to avoid the coming sequester, Ayotte declared in a prepared statement: “We can prevent the first year of sequestration without raising taxes. The legislation I’m introducing today does just that by replacing these reductions with common sense savings found elsewhere in the federal budget.”
Earlier, Ayotte appeared at a press conference with other Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, along with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard (Buck) McKeon, R-Calif. For Republicans, avoiding the almost $45 billion in cuts to defense spending that would take place this year if sequestration goes into effect has been a strong motivation to get an alternative passed.
“Our national security challenges remain great, and we have already reduced defense spending by $487 billion,” Ayotte said during the press conference. “Frankly, our defense should not be used as a bargaining chip because of other policy aspirations that people want to accomplish.”
In a statement later, Ayotte noted, “We’re already feeling the effects of sequestration in New Hampshire, where the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and our defense suppliers are bracing for these cuts.”
Last Friday, two other legislators representing the shipyard area – Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. and Susan Collins, R-Maine – sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, expressing similar concerns about cuts to defense spending and urging them to act to avoid sequestration.
However, Shaheen’s and Collins’ letter suggested that spending cuts “as well as comprehensive tax reform” is needed to head off sequestration. Their letter appears consistent with the strategy laid out Tuesday by Obama, but which has been rejected by Ayotte and a number of her Republican colleagues.
“Yesterday, we heard what the president had to say,” Ayotte declared. “His proposal is unacceptable…Every discussion we’ve heard from this president seems to begin and end with tax increases.”
There was no immediate comment from Shaheen Wednesday on the proposal floated by Ayotte to avoid sequestration. Asked for comment on the legislation introduced by Ayotte and others, Collins responded: “I will carefully evaluate this proposal’s impact on important civilian functions in Maine, such as the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard which employs 4,700 civilian personnel.”
On the forthcoming sequestration, Collins added, “I have made it clear that these mindless, meat-axe cuts must be averted and that Congress and the President must look for balanced and responsible ways to reduce federal spending.”
Measures taken by the United States Navy to prepare for the sequester include a civilian hiring freeze and cutting temporary workers, along with reduced funding for deployments, maintenance, overhauls and repairs. Furloughs of civilian employees of up to 22 days are possible if sequestration takes effect on March 1, Navy officials have warned.
The 10 percent reduction in federal employees proposed by Ayotte would take place through a process of attrition rather than layoffs. Under the plan, for every three federal employees who left their jobs, the federal government would be allowed to hire one.
Advocates of the bill say that the 10 percent reduction would occur over a period of four to five years, but that savings would continue to be seen over a 10-year budget window.
The $85 billion sequester covers only the current fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30. Under sequestration, a total of $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts would take effect over a 10-year period if Congress fails to come up with an alternative for reducing the federal deficit.
When asked whether he thought he would be able to win support for this alternative among House Republicans, many of whom have expressed a willingness to allow sequestration to take place to ensure some spending cuts, McKeon sounded optimistic.
“I think when they have a chance to look at this bill and understand what we’re really facing, I don’t think we’re going to have a problem,” McKeon said.
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