By Mary Orndorff Troyan
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Sen. Lindsey Graham and other Republicans on Wednesday proposed shrinking the federal workforce and freezing congressional pay as a way to avoid huge, automatic spending cuts at the Pentagon.
The "sequester" portion of the August 2011 law that raised the nation's debt limit imposes automatic spending cuts of $1.2 trillion over 10 years - half from defense programs and half from non-defense programs - unless Congress and the White House agree on a less drastic deficit-reduction plan.
The first installment of the automatic spending cuts - $85 billion - will take effect March 1, prompting President Barack Obama and congressional lawmakers to consider alternatives.
Wednesday's proposal came from Graham, GOP Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, John McCain of Arizona, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and top Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee. The lawmakers believe the deep, indiscriminate cuts mandated by the 2011 debt limit law would jeopardize national security.
"Our enemies would love for this to happen," Graham said at a news conference. "I'm sure Iran is very supportive of sequestration."
The GOP proposal borrows an idea from Obama's own deficit-reduction commission that calls for a 10 percent reduction in the federal workforce, or about 200,000 fewer federal workers over time. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform recommended hiring only two new employees for every three who leave service. Ayotte said the bill adds a freeze in congressional pay, for a total savings of $85 billion.
The proposal would cover the remainder of fiscal 2013 and buy Congress and the White House more time to craft a broader deficit reduction plan that would replace the sequester.
The group's announcement comes the day after Obama encouraged a combination of short-term spending cuts and tax reform to prevent sequestration. Republicans objected to the prospect of tax increases, even if it would mean preventing cuts to defense programs.
McCain said the sequestration cuts would threaten 350,000 full-time direct jobs at the Pentagon.
Graham said Republicans, who agreed to the sequester policy in 2011 as an incentive to reach a long-term deficit reduction deal, are partially to blame for the impending military budget crisis. But he was especially critical of Obama, and said allowing the cuts would tarnish his legacy.
"You would have allowed the finest military in the history of the world to deteriorate at a time when we need it most," Graham said.