Pledge threat to defense budget

Worried by the "sequestration" blade set to fall on defense budgets in January, Republicans are sounding alarms with special hearings, a flurry of press releases and bills that offer at least interim solutions.

But will Republicans also reconsider their "anti-tax hike" pledge to the powerful lobbyist Grover Norquist? A rising chorus of critics, including some prominent Republicans, argue they must, and soon, if Congress is to avoid a devastating hit to military readiness and America's defense industry.

Republicans so far have rejected any tax increases. But their anti-tax pledge to Norquist and his group, Americans for Tax Reform, is on a collision course with another tradition for Republicans, protecting defense budgets.

Major defense contractors last week warned that because of the sequestration threat of deep and arbitrary cuts across all defense programs starting Jan. 2, they have slowed hiring, shelved pending contracts and could begin laying off ten of thousands of employees by October.

Rep. Harold "Buck" McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called the hearing to alert the nation to another threat from sequestration. But Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the committee's ranking Democrat, reminded McKeon and colleagues how they got into this fix.

It was House Republicans, he said, who refused last summer to raise the debt ceiling without a deal to cut deficit spending without raising taxes. The result was the Budget Control Act. It directed a trillion dollars in cuts over 10 years including $487 billion from defense. The act, which McKeon voted for and Smith did not, also established a "super committee" of Republicans and Democrats with extraordinary powers to design and hustle through Congress a second round of cuts worth $1.5 trillion over a decade.

The law also specified if no deal was reached then $1.2 trillion in "sequestration," or automatic across-the-board cuts would occur, starting in 2013. The defense budget share is about $500 billion, or $55 billion a year over nine years, on top of the $487 billion in cuts already planned.

Claude Chafin, spokesman for McKeon, said the chairman still believes the "real driver of our debt" is mandatory spending not low taxes.

He wants Democrats to make a "counter offer" to his bill, which would delay the effect of sequestration for a year by cutting the size of the federal workforce.

"If you're unwilling to raise revenue, you better be willing to make dramatic cuts in defense," Smith warned in a phone interview, because cutting non-defense programs alone can't deliver enough savings.

That's the simple math that has driven every study on the $17 trillion debt toward a balanced solution, he said.

McKeon, who has signed the anti-tax pledge, didn't discuss raising taxes to get a budget deal at the hearing with defense contractors. Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.) wasn't as encumbered.

"It's become an article of almost religious faith around here, for some members, that any revenue increase, at anytime, on anyone should be taken off the table. Who here agrees with that proposition," Andrews asked.

Robert J. Stevens, chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, said his method of addressing budget challenges is "to put into the recipe every possible ingredient" to get "a flexible array of solutions."

Andrews reminded the executives that, to save Social Security in the early 1980s, President Reagan twice signed bills that raised revenue.

Republicans "would be wise to follow President Reagan's example in this time of national emergency," he said.

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