During a town hall meeting in North Las Vegas, U.S. Sen. John McCain and two other Republican senators warned Monday that the U.S. military faces automatic "draconian" budget cuts of $500 billion that would put the nation at risk unless President Barack Obama and Democrats agree to a deal by the end of the year.
The defense cuts also could cost more than 1 million jobs nationwide, including 4,256 in Nevada, and cause a negative economic ripple effect - $679 million in lost economic activity in the Silver State alone, the GOP senators said during the meeting at the Cheyenne campus of the College of Southern Nevada.
McCain and U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire visited Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas before the public meeting. They said generals told them the country's fighter pilot program would be devastated if the military cuts go into effect.
"Obviously, they are brave, strong people, and they can do anything, but there's no doubt that cuts would have a draconian effect on their ability to do their jobs," McCain said. "They are brave patriots, and they'll always try to do the job. But we shouldn't deprive them of the tools that they need to do it."
About 50 people attended the hour-long town hall, including a contingent of protesters who argued the military is too big and who booed the senators several time as they spoke. The critics said during a question-and-answer period that Pentagon spending should shrink so that more money can be spent on domestic programs, including boosting help for the poor and unemployed.
"We believe the money does need to be rededicated to social programs," Mary Lou Anderson of Las Vegas said. "There are people in this room who are unemployed. When are we going to cut the (expletive)?"
The three senators have made similar trips across the country to warn of a defense spending disaster if the budget standoff isn't resolved. They have visited Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and New Hampshire, which, like Nevada, are battleground states in the presidential election.
They said they want to put pressure on Obama and Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader, to come to the negotiating table to reach a budget deal. The back-and-forth has turned into a high-stakes game of chicken with neither side seeming to budge despite the risks of inaction.
Graham said Republicans are willing to talk about raising revenues by eliminating tax deductions and loopholes, but the GOP won't agree to raising taxes, as Democrats would like.
Graham accused the Democrats of holding defense spending hostage to get Republicans to agree to allow Bush-era tax cuts to expire for the richest Americans to avoid the automatic cuts that were agreed to last year as part of a deal to raise the U.S. debt ceiling to more than $16 trillion.
"I'm not against reducing the military and reforming it," Graham said. "I'm against destroying it. If this happens, Nellis Air Force Base will never be what it is today."
Obama and Reid have been unmoved by the GOP senators' traveling road show. Monday morning, Reid put out a statement saying both sides had agreed to the budget deal last year. Under a process called sequestration, it was designed to force difficult budget choices by a Jan. 2 deadline or risk automatic across-the-board cuts of $1.2 trillion - about half in defense spending and the rest in nondefense spending.
The Democrats want to fix the budget mess by allowing all of the Bush tax cuts to continue except those for the richest 2 percent of Americans. Republicans argue that now is not the time to raise taxes on anybody with unemployment above 8 percent nationwide and businesses looking to use any profits to expand and hire.
"I'm disappointed my Republican colleagues who are in Nevada today have forgotten that their party helped to put sequestration in place and are now choosing to put millionaires ahead of the military," Reid said. "And I am disappointed my Republican colleagues have forgotten that it was their party's refusal to adopt a balanced approach that closes corporate tax loopholes and asks the wealthiest to pay a little more will cause these defense and domestic cuts to occur."
Reid had been invited to the town hall forum but didn't attend. U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., also had been invited, but he was in Northern Nevada, leading the annual Lake Tahoe summit.
The budget reconciliation act created a special bipartisan committee to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next decade. Because the committee failed to deliver a plan, the law triggered automatic spending cuts known as "sequestration."
The Congressional Budget Office projects that the "sequestration" would require the Department of Defense to cut its budget by about $55 billion per year starting in January. That is in addition to nearly $500 billion in defense spending cuts already agreed to over the next 10 years.
McCain has been working with Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, on a plan to avoid the automatic cuts. They have not yet struck a deal.
McCain said he would like to see Congress act before the Nov. 6 presidential election even if it is for a four-month deal that would allow the next Congress and White House to negotiate a longer-term spending plan.
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has proposed boosting military spending as has his vice presidential running mate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Sen. Ayotte said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a Democrat, has decried the possible automatic defense cuts as "shooting ourselves in the head" in a move that would hollow out the U.S. military. Ayotte warned the nation's fighting forces can't afford to go without proper training and equipment that would face the budget knife.
"The world has not become a safer place," Ayotte said, noting Iran is thought to be developing a nuclear weapon. "Absolutely, this cries out for a bipartisan solution, but it also cries out for leadership."
Contact reporter Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.