U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks at a Feb. 2 news briefing as Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, looks on. (Pete Marovich / Getty Images)
A handful of U.S. Republican senators introduced a plan Feb. 2 that would delay by one year the spending cuts required under sequestration through a continued pay freeze for federal workers and a 5 percent reduction to the federal workforce.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is leading the charge to delay the process of sequestration, which begins automatically cutting money from discretionary spending in January 2013. For the Pentagon, sequestration would take an additional $500 billion from the Pentagon’s base budget over the next 10 years.
The Defense Department is already cutting $487 billion over the 10-year period to meet the initial spending caps mandated by the Budget Control Act.
McCain introduced the legislation, “Down Payment to Protect National Security Act of 2012,” during a news briefing on Capitol Hill.
Sequestration is viewed by almost everyone as a terrible way to reduce government spending because it applies cuts arbitrarily across the federal budget. It was included in the Budget Control Act, which became law in August, in an effort to motivate the bipartisan “supercommittee” to reach an agreement on a $1.2 trillion deficit reduction package.
With the supercommittee’s November failure, sequestration is set to begin in January unless Congress produces $1.2 trillion in savings or revises the law.
The Republicans’ plan would produce enough money to stave off sequestration in 2013 by banking on savings that would take as long as 10 years to achieve. By extending the federal pay freeze and reducing the federal workforce through attrition, the plan would produce $127 billion in savings.
According to McCain, about $110 billion is needed to cover the first year of cuts under sequestration.
Members of Congress would be included in the pay freeze, which would extend through June 2014. The 5 percent reduction in the federal workforce would be achieved by hiring two workers for every three that leave. This could take up to 10 years to achieve, McCain said.
The plan is similar to the one crafted by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., but McKeon’s bill calls for a 10 percent reduction to the workforce through attrition and does not include the pay freeze provision.
Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte, Jon Kyl and John Cornyn joined McCain at the briefing. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is also a sponsor.
The senators had harsh words for President Obama, saying he has failed to show leadership on the issue, while Defense Secretary Leon Panetta continues to warn about the dangers of sequestration and its consequences for the military.
Obama has said he would veto any plan that would undo the Budget Control Act’s sequestration provision because he believes it still could force Congress to come together on a much broader solution to reduce the country’s deficit. Obama would like to see tax increases included in such a package, while Republicans refuse to include them.
Taxes were a contentious issue for the supercommittee and remain the major obstacle for any larger deal. This point was reflected in the immediate response from Democrats to the Republican senators’ plan.
“This plan isn’t about avoiding sequestration, it’s about avoiding having millionaires pay their fair share,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement. Murray served as co-chair of the supercommittee.
McCain said Congress should not let domestic issues such as taxes interfere with national security.
If sequestration remains unresolved after the November elections, the tax cuts, first signed into law by President George W. Bush, become an inextricable part of the debate. If allowed to completely expire Dec. 31, there would be a surge in tax revenue of roughly $3.7 trillion over 10 years.
If extended by Congress and the president, they could be viewed as the action that forces sequestration, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said in an interview last week.
“Throw all that into the stew and I don’t think we pass a complete continuation of the Bush tax cuts, knowing that it will cause sequestration to actually happen,” he said.
McCain, Cornyn and Kyl voted for the Budget Control Act, which included the sequestration provision. Graham and Ayotte did not.
“In my view, allowing the sequestration to occur is one of the most dangerous and irresponsible political decisions that have been made around here in memory,” Ayotte said.