WASHINGTON—House Republicans are intensifying their efforts to protect the Defense Department from $42.7 billion in budget cuts this year that kick in Friday.
Defense hawks have been protesting since Congress first devised the across-the-board cuts, known as the "sequester," to guarantee spending reductions after a congressional panel failed to come up with a deficit reduction plan in 2011.
"I have always felt sequestration was a bad idea. I felt it was a bad idea when the president proposed it. I voted against it. I fought to try to get the president not to sign it. I lost both of those fights," said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., who chairs a subcommittee on the House Armed Services Committee.
Left untouched, the sequester amounts to $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts over the next decade from almost every reach of the federal government except military personnel and entitlement programs like Medicare.
Half of the $85 billion in cuts from March 1 through September will come from the Pentagon, which defense hawks are fighting to reverse, stall, or replace. Compromise remains out of sight.
Forbes, supported by fellow Virginia Republican Rep. Rob Wittman, offered a proposal this week to carve out defense and reduce the amount of the sequester accordingly.
Forbes said that as much of 10% of expected job losses nationwide will come from Virginia, where 200,000 people risk losing their jobs and furloughs threaten to cut 20% from workers' paychecks in the next six months.
For now, their proposal faces strong opposition from President Obama and congressional Democrats, who are seeking a combination of new revenue and alternate spending cuts as an alternative to the sequester. Democrats also believe that some of the cuts must come from defense.
Echoing the prevailing GOP view, Wittman said he would not support a sequester alternative that included more revenue following a tax deal in January that raised $620 billion in taxes from wealthy Americans. "The balanced approach is this: We have had $600 billion in tax increases that just passed in January without any reductions in spending. Now is the time to have the reductions in spending," he said.
Another House Republican, Rep. Austin Scott of Georgia, credits a Democrat with devising another possible alternative to the impending defense cuts.
Scott said former governor Zell Miller used a process called "redirection" when Georgia went through a recession, in which agencies had to cut spending but were given the discretion on how best to do it.
"They would have to present the proposal for approval, so they don't have carte blanche, but then you're taking recommendations for the people who are actually managing the bases on where they could make the cuts," Scott said in an interview. "The problem with the sequester is the way it's done. It leaves very little discretion for the people who are hired to manage the bases to make the decisions."
The cuts could be particularly harsh on Scott's constituents. His congressional district is home to a number of military installations.
"Our states that have major military installations, the impact on our economies is probably going to be bigger than it is on a lot of other states," he said. "As someone who is a conservative, who is also considered a defense hawk, I understand that we can change things in the way we do business at the (Defense Department) and we can save the taxpayers' money, and we can probably have a much improved national defense system."
Forbes said if the sequester is not resolved in the next few weeks, Republicans may use the bill that funds the federal government as a vehicle to give the Pentagon more flexibility in implementing the cuts. That bill requires a vote by March 27, or the federal government will shut down.
"We will mitigate a lot of the horror stories you're hearing out there with (the funding bill) we can do a lot of that," Forbes said, cautioning that it is still not a long-term solution. "But we still are going to have huge problems with national defense, in terms of readiness and in terms of where we want to be."