In the ten months since Congress passed the Budget Control Act last August, a stereotype has taken hold about the different ways in which Republicans and Democrats view the prospect of automatic cuts to the federal budget. Republicans, it is said, are mainly concerned about cuts in military spending but wouldn’t mind slashing entitlements (especially the ones left unprotected by the budget law). Democrats, on the other hand, are said to fear any cuts to entitlements but wouldn’t mind trimming military spending.
The reality is a bit more complicated, as can be seen in the public remarks of two prominent Democratic officials this week. On Monday, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan told reporters at the National Press Club that steps needed to be taken right away to reduce the danger sequestration poses to the nation’s military posture. As Emelie Rutherford reported the next day inDefense Daily, Levin believes that $10 billion in additional defense cuts per year is more feasible and responsible than the $55 billion that the budget law would impose. He wants Congress to prove it can compromise on the matter before the new fiscal year begins on October 1, because right now markets are getting the message that military spending is headed for a “trainwreck.”
Two days later, Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale warned members of the Senate Appropriations Committee defense subcommittee that sequestration would reduce funding for military healthcare, including the previously sacrosanct TRICARE program that covers retirees and dependents as well as current military personnel. Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners says this is the first time a senior official has publicly raised the potential impact of sequestration on military healthcare. That impact wouldn’t be trivial: if the president exercises his authority under the law to exempt the military personnel account from automatic cuts, then other accounts — including the operations and maintenance account where most defense healthcare funding is contained — would be cut at least 13 percent next year.
What these two instances of Democratic alarm over the potential consequences of sequestration tell you is that it isn’t just Republicans who are worried about how the Budget Control Act will impact defense. Everybody has a stake in national security, and that includes in the narrow political sense of home-state fallout. Even the White House is belatedly awakening to the fact that the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act will require over a million defense workers to be sent contingent pink slips on the eve of a presidential election due to impending sequestration. That isn’t likely to be good news for an incumbent who is being challenged largely on the basis of his jobs performance. Democrats may finally be coming around to the view that something needs to be done about sequestration before the election rather than after. The question is whether they can find a formula Republicans will embrace.
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