Some Pennsylvania Republicans are scrambling to explain their votes for a House spending bill now that it appears a range of Army depots and arsenals could face severe, unanticipated cuts under the legislation.
The Defense Department estimated that 3,000 jobs are in the balance nationwide, and one Member of Congress attributes the surprise cuts to an "accounting error."
The issue comes as lawmakers are already feeling pressure over steep automatic spending cuts required by last year's debt limit deal under its pending sequestration provisions.
The House-passed cuts are more of a political cudgel than an actual threat to the defense facilities because House and Senate leaders have already reached a deal for a six-month continuing resolution and the bill at issue is now highly unlikely to become law.
And House lawmakers who spotted the problem during the floor debate on the bill vowed to fix it before it was ever passed in final form.
Still, Democratic challengers in Pennsylvania are ripping GOP Members for their votes in support of the bill.
Phil Scollo, a businessman challenging Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), has turned the issue into a mini-crusade.
"This defense appropriations bill would seriously impact our region's economy and destroy local jobs," Scollo said. "Tom Marino needs to come clean with voters about what actually happened and why he voted for this bill because the story his office told the Times-Leader does not match the record, as told by his own colleagues."
Marino and Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) have offered different explanations for why they voted for the bill, even though it would "eviscerate" the nearby Tobyhanna Army Depot, in the words of a Scranton Times-Tribune editorial.
Bill Tighe, Marino's chief of staff, said the Congressman was assured the problem would be fixed by top Appropriations Committee members.
During the July 18 debate on the bill, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) inserted a letter into the Congressional Record describing the problem.
According to the letter, the spending levels in the bill for arsenals and depots, two specific types of military facilities, were based on the anticipation those facilities had significant "carryover" funds, or money that had been previously appropriated but not yet spent.
"It is our understanding that the Army did not provide a detailed explanation for excessive levels of carryover money until after the Appropriations Committee passed this year's Defense Bill. Once the Army provided this analysis, it became clear to all parties involved that the House Appropriations Committee's proposed funding levels would not provide adequate funding to sustain depots and arsenals throughout Fiscal Year 2013," the letter said.
In response to Shuster, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), a top appropriator, said, "We are pleased to work closely with members of the army depot and arsenal delegation throughout the conference proceedings to ensure their concerns are fully addressed and the necessary adjustments to depot and arsenal funding are made."
But despite the letter and a floor debate over the issue, Barletta said in an Aug. 3 statement that he was never aware of the cuts in the bill because of an "accounting error."
"After the defense spending bill was overwhelmingly passed in a bipartisan vote, it was discovered that the authors of the bill based their recommendations on an accounting error," Barletta said in the statement.
Barletta spokeswoman Renita Fennick conceded that concerns were raised about devastating cuts to Army depots before the vote. But she said those concerns raised "did not specifically include Tobyhanna" depot, the Army depot of concern to Barletta's constituents.
"Rep. Barletta's vote was based on assurances by the House Army Liaison's Office that funding levels contained in the overall bill would not impact the workforce at Tobyhanna," Fennick said. "It was not until after the bill's passage that Rep. Barletta was informed that the previous assurances regarding Tobyhanna may have been in error."
Barletta's Democratic challenger, Gene Stilp, is also criticizing the Member for his "slipshod way of voting," according to the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) has been working to address the issue and ensure that were the Senate Appropriations Committee to pass a defense spending bill, it would not include the cuts in the House bill for arsenals and depots.
The Defense Department told Casey's office that the cuts could result in 3,000 layoffs nationwide, his spokeswoman said.
"As you know, when talented workers are laid off, they do not wait for their employers to rehire them. If these highly skilled workers fail to return, depots will spend more money training a new workforce and restarting production lines than the savings envisioned by these cuts," Casey said in a July 26 letter.
Beyond Pennsylvania, the cuts would hit depots in Anniston, Ala.; Corpus Christi, Texas; and Red River, Texas, according to a list provided by a Congressional source.
Arsenals on the chopping block include the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Colorado and the Watervliet Arsenal in New York.
Based on a review of local newspapers in those locations, the issue has not yet attracted scrutiny in those places as it has in Pennsylvania.