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Roll Call

Sequester Fuels GOP Campaign Rhetoric

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call
Former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (second from left) is touring with Sen. Mark Warner (center), who has been working to devise a deficit reduction deal to stop automatic budget cuts from taking effect. Both men visited a robotics firm in Fredericksburg, Va., on Monday.

Calls to avert automatic spending cuts from both sides of the aisle have gone unheeded for nearly a year, and it might be that the stalemate is proving to be too good of a campaign issue to waste.

Even as GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) have toured the country, arguing for a pre-emptive deal to avert what even the Obama administration has said would be "devastating" cuts to military and nonmilitary programs, Republicans on the campaign trail seem content to leave the issue to the post-election lame-duck session.

In Connecticut, where Pentagon spending is the gasoline in the state's economic engine, GOP Senate nominee Linda McMahon has criticized her opponent, Rep. Christopher Murphy, on sequestration.

McMahon released a radio spot last week calling Murphy a career politician.

"Because Congress didn't do its job and eliminate wasteful spending, automatic budget cuts now threaten 35,000 defense jobs here in Connecticut," McMahon says in the ad. "Good jobs at Electric Boat, Sikorsky and Pratt & Whitney are endangered. And Congressman Chris Murphy actually supports even more across-the-board defense cuts."

The Murphy campaign pushed back quickly, noting that he actually opposed last year's debt limit deal that set up the sequester. Those automatic cuts were triggered by the failure of the now-defunct super committee to come up with alternative cuts.

"The truth is that Chris Murphy voted against defense sequestration and is fighting for a balanced and bipartisan plan to save local defense jobs. Linda McMahon, however, is so focused on preserving her $7 million tax cut that she stands with Republicans holding any deal hostage to protect tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires," Taylor Lavender, a Murphy spokeswoman, said in a statement in response.

Murphy seems to be on the offensive on the tax issue, joining most Democrats in supporting the expiration of the top George W. Bush-era tax rates. The issues are certain to surface again at an October debate in New London, which neighbors a Naval submarine base.

Meanwhile in Virginia, former Govs. George Allen (R) and Tim Kaine (D) are dedicating a lot of their time on the campaign trail to visiting defense facilities, and Kaine has been hitting Allen over his opposition to the underlying debt limit agreement.

"There were two strategies a year ago around the debt ceiling situation: one that suggested the nation should default on its credit for the first time ever. My opponent and a few others - they were loud but they were small in number - promoted that point of view," Kaine told WAVY-TV in Norfolk on Monday. "That would have created a fiscal collapse like the 2008 fiscal collapse."

Kaine is touring with Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who has been working to devise a larger deal on deficit reduction to stop the budget cuts. Both men on Monday heard from a robotics firm owner in Fredericksburg, Va., who told them potential defense cuts have made him cautious about hiring, according to the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg.

Allen held a defense industry roundtable Monday in Stafford, predictably tweaking Kaine about what Democrats call the need for a "balanced" deficit deal that includes higher tax rates for wealthier taxpayers.

"Some want to use these harmful cuts as leverage to raise taxes. The men and women of our armed forces should never be used as a political bargaining tool to raise taxes on job-creating small-business owners," Allen said.

Republicans are going on offense about defense spending in other close Senate races, as well. Both Reps. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) and Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.) have criticized their opponents - incumbent Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and Bill Nelson, respectively - on the sequester.

Mack and Rehberg voted against the debt deal in the House, while Nelson and Tester supported it in the Senate.

Speaking at an event Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, retired Defense Secretary Robert Gates - who ran the Pentagon under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama - charged lawmakers with being more interested in winning re-election than with resolving the debt issue.

"Across the spectrum, too many of our political leaders seem more concerned with winning elections and scoring political points than with saving the country. My hope is that following the presidential election, whatever adults remain in the two political parties will make the compromises necessary to put this country back in order," Gates said.

The political benefits of the looming spending cuts, which would total $109 billion next year (of that, more than $54 billion would be used to slash the defense budget), seem to thus far outweigh the criticism from outside groups, though the cries are getting louder.

"This is no way to run a government," Gates charged. "Across-the-board cuts are the worst possible way to exercise budget discipline."

Speaking at the same event, former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), who co-authored a deficit reduction proposal commissioned by the president in 2010, blasted lawmakers on both sides for being too beholden to outside interests - including the AARP and Americans for Tax Reform, which is helmed by Grover Norquist.

"What can he do to you? He can't murder you; he can't burn your house down. The only thing he can do to you is defeat your for re-election," Simpson said of Norquist. "If that means more to you than your country when it needs patriots, hell, you shouldn't even be in Congress." 

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