In some lawmakers' minds, there's no stopping the sequester. So they're making a plea to the Obama administration: Just don't cut in my backyard.
With the automatic budget cuts set to strike all aspects of the federal government March 1, members of the House and Senate are beseeching administration officials -- both in private and during public hearings -- to spare key programs and employment hubs back home.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) recently asked the Army Corps of Engineers' top civilian official if she had a way to steer the looming cuts within the agency, making the case that President Barack Obama can't boost exports by underfunding water projects along the Mississippi River. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has been huddling with top Navy officials at the Pentagon and in the Capitol about how to protect thousands of jobs at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and related contractors.
And Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) has been sounding the alarm about potential cuts to his state's White Sands Missile Range and two national laboratories, which help manage the nation's nuclear stockpile.
The panicked pleas from Capitol Hill offer a reminder about one big reason why Congress has failed to tame the $16.5 trillion debt: Politicians may talk a lot about tightening Washington's belt, but they get the blame if federal pork stops flowing back home.
"I'm almost relishing the moment all these tough-talking guys say: 'Can you help me with my base?'" Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the most vocal critics of the sequester, told POLITICO.
"When it's somebody else's base and district, it's good government. When it's in your state or your backyard, it's devastating," he added.
While many lawmakers have been directly urging the administration to save their pet projects, others are employing an outside-in approach. During the weeklong Presidents Day recess, they tried to fire up voters to pressure Congress to strike a deal to avert the cuts.
Illinois Reps. Cheri Bustos, a Democrat, and Adam Kinzinger, a Republican, toured local defense contractor SupplyCore on Tuesday and warned of the sequester's impact on Rockford. Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) put his national anti-sequester tour on hold, instead taking his message to local town halls in Green Valley, Sun Lakes and Phoenix this week.
For months, the retired Navy pilot has argued broadly that the across-the-board cuts would cripple the nation's defense capabilities, but McCain mentioned one specific: "They make the Apache helicopter in Mesa, Ariz. If they cut back, it would have to be affected there."
In all, 1,200 budget accounts across the government would be hit by the sequester if no deal is reached by the March deadline. Office of Management and Budget Controller Danny Werfel testified on Valentine's Day that the cuts would be implemented "equally" across all programs, projects and activities within each of those accounts.
But that hasn't stopped lawmakers from trying to figure out if agencies have any wiggle room on how to enact the cuts. At a recent hearing on Capitol Hill, Wicker warned that cuts to the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, which manages inland waterways and flood risks, would harm the local economy and pose a safety threat.
He pressed Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, about whether she could send a request "upstream in the bureaucracy" for more flexibility in carrying out cuts to the Army Corps.
Darcy's response: It would be nice, but the law is the law.
In recent days, Obama administration officials have been leaning on Congress to find a fix to the sequester, offering more specifics about what exactly will be on the chopping block when $85 billion in governmentwide cuts kick in.
Customs and Border Protection would have to cut work hours by the equivalent of 5,000 Border Patrol agents, reducing security and adding to wait times at land and sea ports. More than 100,000 formerly homeless people -- many of them veterans -- would be kicked out of their housing or emergency shelters. The furloughing of the Department of Agriculture's food inspectors could shut down meat and poultry plants nationwide, causing $10 billion in production losses.
Details like these -- shared during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing last week -- have put elected officials on high alert. And increasingly, lawmakers have been arguing that cutting certain programs in their state could jeopardize national security.
That could be because the law that created the sequester would allow the Defense Department to shift funds to ensure that America's military readiness is "not degraded," according to a White House report.
Collins, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee's defense panel, earlier this month hosted Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in her office to voice her concerns about how the spending cuts would devastate the shipbuilding industry on the Maine-New Hampshire border. At the Pentagon last week, she hammered home that same message in a meeting with the Navy's top official for shipbuilding, Sean Stackley.
"Maine is a state that contributes heavily to our national security. Its largest employer is Bath Ironworks, which builds naval destroyers. You can't build a half a ship," Collins said in an interview with POLITICO. "I'm worried about the impact on shipbuilding. I'm worried about the impact on the naval shipyard, one of our four public yards in the country that overhauls nuclear subs."
Udall, too, has been making the national security argument -- especially when it comes to the Sandia and Los Alamos national labs. The nuclear stockpiles there are managed by the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration.
"Sequestration threatens damaging cuts for New Mexico's national labs, military facilities and border security," Udall told top administration officials at a sequestration hearing. "If implemented, those cuts will be very damaging, I believe, to our national security."
But there are still a good number of folks on Capitol Hill who believe the sequester won't be the economic and defense doomsday critics are making it out to be.
"In my state, overwhelmingly, they want me to cut spending," Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) told POLITICO. "Nobody walks into a town hall and says, 'Mike, here are 500 projects I want you to cut.' What they're saying is, 'Get this [spending] under control.' They are very frustrated with trillion-dollar deficits."
Graham, a defense hawk and military attorney, believes many of his fellow Republicans will be singing a different tune when the cuts start hitting close to home. It could be reminiscent of the unpopular federal commission known as BRAC that realigned or shut down hundreds of military installations around the country over the past 25 years.
"Senators are gonna be running around with their hair on fire when this thing actually hits," Graham said in the interview. "I remember during BRAC, everybody was going crazy to make sure their base was not on the list -- this is BRAC on steroids."
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