A months-long fight in Congress over how to avoid automatic, across-the-board cuts to defense programs set to kick in next year is increasingly bleeding in to battleground districts home to significant numbers of military service members and contractors.
With the Jan. 1 deadline nearing, and the parties still at loggerheads over how to order national priorities within the budget, Republicans and Democrats are scrambling to avoid blame for the pending cuts, eager to finger members of the other party.
The GOP approach, which passed the House Thursday, would override the defense cuts with billions of dollars in cuts to food stamps and other social programs for the poor. A Democratic alternative would replace the automatic cuts with a mix of cuts to corporate subsidies and higher taxes on the wealthy, but the GOP denied that bill a vote on the House floor.
In the aftermath, a top Armed Services Committee Republican — Rep. Randy Forbes — is prepared to host a series of town hall meetings in defense-heavy Virginia to place the onus for replacing the cuts on Democrats. And a leading Maryland Democrat is hoping to spoil Forbes’s effort to win the headline war.
“We also put forward a plan on the floor of the House last week to prevent the sequester from taking place for one year,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) on a conference call with reporters hosted by the Democratic-leaning advocacy group National Security Network, billed as an effort to pre-but Forbes’s public appearances.
Van Hollen explained the differences between the two approaches.
The GOP plan, he noted, “cut deeply into food and nutrition programs for kids in struggling families,” while the Democratic alternative, “combined cuts with cuts to tax breaks to special interests and wealthy Americans.”
Looming defense cuts, officially dubbed “sequestration,” are one of the consequences of the debt-limit fight. Last summer’s agreement tasked Congress with passing $1.2 trillion in further deficit reduction, and used automatic, across-the-board cuts to defense and non-defense programs as an enforcement mechanism to achieve the savings if Congress failed.
And so the race is on to avoid the cuts some other way. The two approaches Van Hollen described reflect differences of vision between the parties that sit at the heart of the 2012 election. They’re also a twist on the GOP’s broader legislative strategy to block new tax revenue, and thus force Congress to shrink budget deficits with cuts to social programs. The GOP agenda has been unpopular with voters, and their anti-tax strategy has so far yielded mixed results. But the fact that Republicans control the House and have passed legislation to avoid the cuts means Democrats will have to make it clear to voters in these districts that the underlying priorities are the source of the conflict.
Both parties agree, Van Hollen noted, that “the meat axe, across-the-board cuts to both defense and non-defense are a reckless way to reduce the deficit.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.