Republicans Revive an Alternative to Defense Budget Cuts

Republican members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees revived a proposal to avert automatic spending cuts by reducing the federal workforce through attrition and freezing congressional salaries.

The legislation would save $85 billion through Sept. 30, the same amount as the across-the-board cuts that would be divided between defense and domestic programs, said Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. She was among lawmakers presenting the plan at a news conference today in Washington.

Similar Republican proposals to halt federal hiring didn’t advance in Congress last year.

The automatic cuts, called sequestration, will take effect March 1 unless Congress and President Barack Obama agree on an alternative. Yesterday, Obama urged lawmakers to propose a short-term package of reductions and tax-code changes, such as limiting tax breaks, to delay the reductions.

“The president gave us a proposal that cuts defense spending once again,” Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said at the news conference. He called Obama’s plan “irresponsible, unacceptable.”

“I’m sure Iran is very supportive of sequestration,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Unless Obama leads the way to prevent the defense cuts, he’ll be remembered “as one of the most irresponsible commanders in chief in the history of the country,” Graham said.

‘Readiness Crisis’

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said today that the reductions risk producing “the most serious readiness crisis in over a decade.”

Urging Congress to accept Obama’s proposal, Panetta told an audience at Georgetown University in Washington, “My fear is that there is a dangerous and callous attitude that is developing among some Republicans and some Democrats that these dangerous cuts can be allowed to take place in order to blame the other party for the consequences.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee has scheduled a Feb. 12 hearing to take testimony from General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other military-service leaders on the potential effects of automatic spending cuts on the Defense Department.

“Our defense should not be used as a bargaining chip because of other policy aspirations,” Ayotte said today. She said the Republican proposal wouldn’t raise taxes.

Congress created the automatic cuts in August 2011 as part of a plan to raise the U.S. debt ceiling. While the spending reductions were set to take effect in January, lawmakers delayed them for two months as part of a Jan. 1 measure that included tax increases on top incomes.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has said he wants to pare back the automatic reductions, perhaps several months at a time, with a combination of tax revenue increases and spending curbs.