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As Congress wrangles, Obama warns naval shipyard workers of defense cuts

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013 9:45 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Photo by Joseph C. Fudge/Newport News Daily Press/MCT)
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to workers at Newport News shipbuilding in Hampton, Virginia, Tuesday morning, February 26, 2013. Obama journeyed to military-rich Virginia Tuesday to prod Congress to halt looming across-the-board federal spending cuts, warning of the potential consequences on America's armed forces and economy.

(MCT) — NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — President Barack Obama journeyed Tuesday to military-rich Virginia to prod Congress to halt looming federal spending cuts, warning of the potential consequences on America’s armed forces and economy.

“These cuts are wrong,” Obama said of the spending plan he signed into law in 2011, part of a deal to wrangle an increase in the nation’s debt ceiling from Republicans. “They’re not smart. They’re not fair. They’re a self-inflicted wound that doesn’t have to happen.”

Obama spoke to hundreds of enthusiastic Newport News Shipbuilding employees in a cavernous building where the front sections of nuclear submarines are built. The massive tip of a submarine situated on one side of the room was adorned with an American flag.

Obama’s campaign-style event did not appear to spur action on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers spent another day bickering about whether to avert the reductions just three days before they’re scheduled to start taking effect.

Congress appeared to make little headway in finding an acceptable solution to the automatic spending cuts, or sequestration. Senate Republicans, who were expected Tuesday to unveil an alternative plan that would give the administration flexibility in how the cuts are apportioned, were unable to rally around one proposal. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Senate is expected to vote on a Democratic sequester alternative plan this week. But the prospects of a legislative solution that both parties can agree on appeared dim Tuesday.

“We’ve got matters still under discussion in our conference,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Tuesday. “We’ll see how many votes we’ll have. It’s all yet to be determined.”

Some senators in both parties oppose the flexibility idea, saying it’s either an abdication of senatorial power or gives the White House too much power over the nation’s purse strings.

“I’m not prepared to give up my constitutional responsibilities, including hundreds of hours of work on the defense authorization bill,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the Armed Services Committee. “I would do everything in my power to resist that.”

A frustrated House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday that the Senate should “get off their ass” and pass something to avert the sequester. Reid took umbrage over the remark, saying, “I think he (Boehner) should understand who is sitting on their posterior.

“The speaker is doing nothing to try to pass anything over there,” Reid said. “He’s falling back on what they did the last Congress.”

Obama, who said he signed the bill hoping the automatic cuts would be replaced by a combination of smaller spending cuts and tax increases, again urged Congress to delay the cuts by passing a package of $930 billion in spending cuts and $580 billion in new tax revenue over 10 years. He’d raise taxes by eliminating tax loopholes that benefit certain industries or the wealthy. He said he was not asking for an income tax increase, though he did not mention that he pushed — and succeeded — in passing a series of tax increases two months ago.

“I just have to be honest with you: There are too many Republicans in Congress right now who refuse to compromise even an inch when it comes to closing tax loopholes and special interest tax breaks,” he said. “And that’s what’s holding things up right now.”

Obama said for the first time Tuesday that he would not support the Republican-led effort to shift the cuts to other areas.

“The problem is when you’re cutting $85 billion in seven months, which represents over a 10 percent cut in the defense budget in seven months, there’s no smart way to do that,” he said. “You don’t want to have to choose between, let’s see, do I — do I close funding for the disabled kid or the poor kid? Do I close this Navy shipyard or some other one?”

Obama’s administration has outlined what the reductions might mean in each state, but Republicans dispute some of the damage the cuts may cause.

“The impact of this policy won’t be felt overnight but it will be real,” Obama said. “The sequester will weaken America’s economic recovery. It will weaken our military readiness. And it will weaken the basic services that the American people depend on every single day.”

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said Tuesday that the cuts are ill-timed given the weak economy, suggesting an approach that enacts steep spending cuts further out when economic recovery has gained more steam.

“The Congress and the administration should consider replacing the sharp, front-loaded spending cuts required by the sequestration with policies that reduce the federal deficit more gradually in the near term but more substantially in the longer run,” he said.

Bernanke does not support a proposal to give agencies more flexibility on the cuts.

“I think that the near-term effect on growth would probably not be substantially different if you did it that way,” he said.

Virginia’s Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, sent a letter to Obama and Congress last week, saying the cuts could force his state into a recession.

A study by George Mason University indicated that Virginia could lose more than 200,000 jobs, more than 136,000 in defense, if the cuts go into effect.

The cuts would be felt across the state, though they would hit Newport News and the entire Hampton Roads region — home of the world’s largest naval facility and thousands of defense-related jobs — particularly hard.

About 90,000 civilian Department of Defense employees would be furloughed in the state, according to the White House. Army base operation funding would be cut by about $146 million. The maintenance of 11 ships in Norfolk would be canceled.

Employees at Newport News Shipbuilding, the largest manufacturing employer in Virginia, have been hearing rumors for weeks that layoffs were imminent. Many workers offered the chance to see the president Tuesday said they wanted to hear whether the problems in Washington could be solved.

“I just wish they could agree,” said Damarus Stephens, a dock electrician from Newport News who has worked at the company for a year. “I know they agree to disagree, but I just wish they would agree to agree.”

In a rare show of bipartisanship, Obama was joined by both Democratic and Republican members of Congress who represent the region — Reps. Bobby Scott, a Democrat, and Scott Rigell, a Republican who has urged his party to compromise.

“I’ve also shared with my colleagues that I believe that a position that says we will reject a proposal if it has even a dollar increase in revenue, I don’t think that’s a wise position and I don’t hold that value,” Rigell said.

Republicans mocked Obama for campaigning and urged him to return to Washington and negotiate.

“The president has been traveling all over the country and today going down to Newport News in order to use our military men and women as a prop in yet another campaign rally to support his tax hikes,” Boehner said.

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