Republicans are fuming at the White House’s recent attempts to neutralize — for the moment — the hot potato of automatic defense cuts ahead of the November elections.
And the GOP is furiously looking for ways to hand back to President Barack Obama the politically sensitive issue of possible military contractor layoffs come January.
On Wednesday, the issue boiled over in a highly partisan House Armed Services Committee hearing on the roughly half a trillion dollars in defense cuts, the lack of specificity from the administration on exactly what they would mean and what the GOP considers a calculated effort by the White House to duck the political consequences until after the elections.
Republicans have been criticizing the Obama administration for months over the defense cuts agreed to in last year’s debt deal. The sequester was intended to bring both parties together to pass a major deficit reduction package, but has increasingly twisted the GOP into a pretzel.
That was the whole point, Democrats and the administration say. Their goal was to force the GOP to make a choice: They could fund defense or keep tax cuts for the rich, but not both.
Republicans, however, complain that a move by the Department of Labor this week advising contractors against sending out layoff notices in advance of the elections is aimed at letting the White House off the political hook for Obama’s strategy of taking defense spending hostage.
Under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, employers are supposed to give at least 60 days notice of expected mass layoffs, but the DOL said doing so would be inappropriate under the law. The guidance noted that it’s not clear at this point where the cuts would come from and that both parties are working to find an alternative to the sequester.
Infuriated GOP leaders said the move was obviously political.
“The only reason the administration sent out this guidance to employers earlier this week was to keep people in the dark about the impact these defense cuts will have — until after the election,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said. The Kentucky Republican complained that even as the administration was telling private employers not to issue layoff notices, the Office of Management and Budget was issuing guidance this week to agencies to start preparing for the looming cuts.
“So let’s get this straight: Government workers should prepare for cuts, but private businesses and their employees shouldn’t?” McConnell asked, calling it another sign of the president’s “contempt for the private sector.”
“What a perfect summary of this administration’s approach to the economy and jobs over the past three and a half years. ... The private sector’s doing just fine. It’s the government that needs help. That’s the message the administration’s sending,” he said.
Republicans also pointed to then-Sen. Barack Obama’s co-sponsorship of the Forewarn Act, which would have strengthened requirements that employers notify employees of impending layoffs.
“The least employers can do when they’re anticipating layoffs is to let workers know they’re going to be out of a job and a paycheck with enough time to plan for their future,” Obama said in a 2007 press release.
“Typical politician, promises to close WARN Act loopholes and then creates a big one for himself,” a GOP aide said.
Democrats and the White House, however, have repeatedly charged the GOP with running from the deal they voted for to resolve last year’s debt limit crisis. That deal was precipitated by Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) demand for spending cuts as the price of avoiding what would have been a historic default on the debt.
The sequester “was created with overwhelming Republican support and is a Republican initiative,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Wednesday. “It is a Republican product that they are now wringing their hands and saying, ‘we really didn’t mean it.’”
An administration official also dismissed Republican complaints about the WARN Act, saying that the DOL issued straightforward guidance based on the law, and that there’s no reason the cuts should happen.
“Right now Congressional Republicans are trying to get out of what they agreed to because they’d rather protect tax cuts for some of the wealthiest Americans than make tough choices needed to reduce the deficit — even if it risks big cuts in our military and domestic priorities,” the official said. “The president disagrees and will continue to urge Congress to act to avoid these devastating cuts.”
Republican leaders deny culpability for the defense sequester, saying that the White House insisted on the defense cuts as part of the deal.
“We passed it reluctantly, at your urging, after receiving a commitment that the president and the Democratic leadership in the Senate would work with Republicans to avert the sequester by enacting a deficit reduction package built on pro-growth tax reform and much-needed changes to strengthen and stabilize our entitlement programs,” House GOP leaders wrote in a letter Wednesday. They also offered to return to Washington, D.C., in August to cut a deal.
But one of their own undercut leadership’s argument.
“My party has their fingerprints all over it,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Fox News on Wednesday. “It was the Republican leadership who agreed with the concept that if the super committee failed, let’s have a decimating of the Defense Department as one of the consequences. The party of Ronald Reagan would have never allowed that to happen.”
Graham has been urging contractors to start sending out layoff notices to force Congress to act. And Labor’s guidance does not appear to preclude them from doing so if they choose.
At the Armed Services hearing, Republicans complained that defense contractors were being left in a tough spot and national security was being put at risk.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter called the sequester “senseless chaos” designed to prod Congress to act on the deficit and noted that it was intended to be irrational.
Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), however, fumed over the lack of layoff notices.
“I guess the conclusion is that the administration doesn’t believe Americans deserve the common courtesy of being given a couple months’ notice before they lose their jobs,” he said.
OMB Director Jeffrey Zients urged Congress to reach a deal to avoid the sequester.
“The right course is not to spend time moving around rocks at the bottom of the cliff to make for a less painful landing,” he said. “The right course is to avoid driving off the cliff altogether.”
Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) challenged Zients. “So is it your thought that sequestration, with all of its atrocities, even though it may be in effect holding national defense blackmail, is a proper tool if it forces deficit reduction?”
“There are five months remaining for Congress to act,” Zients said. “What is holding us up right now is the Republican refusal to have the top 2 percent pay their fair share.”