Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell says that defense spending must be reined in if Congress is serious about getting the nation’s fiscal house in order but opposes the $500 billion in automatic defense cuts under last year’s debt deal, warning they would weaken national security, kill jobs and devastate his state’s defense industry.
Thought to be on the short list of potential vice-presidential picks for Republican standard-bearer Mitt Romney, Mr. McDonnell’s willingness to place defense spending on the chopping block puts him at odds with the former Massachusetts governor, who has railed against President Obama’s attempts to reduce the size of the Pentagon budget and vowed to beef it up.
In a meeting on Friday with editors and reporters of The Washington Times, Mr. McDonnell said he supported the debt deal that lawmakers hammered out last summer because it represented the “lesser of multiple evils” — noting the looming concerns over the potential downgrading of the nation’s credit rating.
Republicans, he said, were optimistic that the “supercommittee” established through the deal would be able to forge a bipartisan deficit-cutting agreement. But it didn’t, triggering $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts that will be split between defense and non-defense spending if Congress fails to find common ground before the end of the year. That does not bode well for Virginia, which is home to a high number of defense contractors and military bases.
“Everyone had equal pressure on them to make a deal. Well, that’s been 12 months now and we are two months away from hundreds of thousands of defense contractors sending out WARN notices,” he said, alluding to Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification, which gives employees a heads up on potential layoffs.
“We are 5½ months from having sequestration actually going into effect, which of course I think will have a very negative effect on national security and a particularly devastating effect on jobs in Virginia — particularly in Northern Virginia, in and around the Defense Department,” he said.
Mr. McDonnell, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, blamed the budget standoff on President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, pointing to the Nevada Democrat’s refusal to take up a House Republican bill that would replace the sequestration with a combination of savings in the food-stamp program, reductions in Medicaid spending, and ending funding for the implementation of the president’s health care overhaul.
“The question for Harry Reid is: ‘Why won’t you look at an alternative for effecting the $1.2 trillion in cuts?’ — keeping in mind that $1.2 trillion is a drop in the bucket. That’s not even one year of the deficit,” he said, arguing that Congress must do all that is within its power to reduce the nation’s annual deficits and soaring debt.
“So, there is no question that defense is going to have to be cut. I think a lot of things are going to have to be cut, but [the debt deal] was done in such a haphazard way that nobody really expected sequestration to go into effect,” Mr. McDonnell said.
While Mr. McDonnell’s willingness to consider cuts to defense is out of sync with Mr. Romney’s plans, budget hawks say that if the presumptive GOP nominee is serious about fulfilling his campaign pledge to balance the budget by 2020, without raising taxes, then the defense budget cannot be a sacred cow.
“Any serious negotiation to get the deficit under control is going to have to include defense spending,” said Bob Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan deficit watchdog group. “It is totally impractical to leave defense off the table, as defense spending has grown rapidly in recent years — and all parts of the budget are going to have to take a hit. It is both a matter of numbers and a matter of compromise. You can’t take one very large part of the budget and say this is off the table.”
The Romney camp shrugs off those who claim that Republican promises to balance the budget without raising taxes or cutting defense simply does not add up.
“Gov. Romney recognizes that the first responsibility of the federal government is providing for the common defense, and he is committed to devoting the resources necessary to meet that responsibility,” said Amanda Henneberg, a campaign spokeswoman.
She said her boss will put the nation “on the path to balancing the budget” by overhauling the tax code, reducing non-security discretionary spending and reforming entitlement programs, as he has vowed to reshape Social Security and Medicare without changing benefits for retirees or those 55 years or older.
The sequesters have become a flash point in the U.S. Senate race that is playing out in Mr. McDonnell’s state between Republican George Allen and Democrat Timothy M. Kaine.
Mr. Allen has attacked Mr. Kaine for supporting the debt-ceiling deal last summer, with Mr. Kaine’s camp replying that a majority of Virginia’s Republican congressional delegation, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, as well as Mr. McDonnell backed the deal. They also say Mr. Kaine opposes the cuts that now hang over the state.
Mr. Romney, meanwhile, has showed no signs of walking back his promises on national security spending, repeatedly promising to increase the nation’s shipbuilding rate from nine to 15 per year, and ensuring that defense spending never drops below 4 percent of national gross domestic product.
Speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference in Reno, Nev., last week, Mr. Romney pushed back against the sequestration.
“We are just months away from an arbitrary, across-the-board budget reduction that would saddle the military with a trillion dollars in cuts, severely shrink our force structure, and impair our ability to meet and deter threat,” he said.