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Heck co-sponsors bill to give federal agencies power to target sequestration cuts

WASHINGTON — With Friday’s deadline approaching, a handful of lawmakers are seeking to grant President Barack Obama flexibility to reshape automatic budget cuts and blunt their impact.

The idea has received a mixed reception and is opposed by the White House, so legislation to give the president such “transfer authority” is a long shot, at least before the sequester takes effect.

Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., submitted the Sequestration Flexibility Act on Monday. It would give the heads of federal agencies and departments flexibility to decide what programs are cut to meet the $85 billion deficit reduction target, split equally among defense and non defense spending.

“I am hoping that common sense will prevail,” Ribble said on C-SPAN.

Among a handful of early co-sponsors is Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev.

“Everyone agrees that the indiscriminate nature of the cuts would be harmful for hardworking Nevada families, the economy, and our nation’s military so it is imperative that we take action to give agencies the flexibility to lessen the damaging effects of the president’s sequester,” Heck said in a statement.

Mike Kreps of Las Vegas, who worked 11 years as a Defense Department special agent investigating fraud, waste and abuse for the inspector general, said there is plenty of fat to trim to save $85 billion without having to furlough workers. Sequestration is just a scare tactic at the center of a political fight, he said.

“There is plenty of fraud and waste in the Department of Defense,” Kreps said Monday. “Congress puts in programs for weapons systems that our generals don’t even ask for and don’t want. You could save that money easily.”

He said giving the secretary of defense flexibility to transfer funds would protect military readiness at the expense of cutting travel, conferences and recruiting advertising.

While some Republicans are supporting the flexibility idea, others in the party don’t trust giving Obama power to shape the cuts. Still others don’t like the idea of Congress ceding its “power of the purse” to the White House.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader, told reporters Tuesday that there is no logic for Congress to give up its power to the administration to adjust spending cuts.

Reid and Democrats are united behind an alternative that would replace the sequester with $110 billion consisting of cuts in farm payments, closing tax loopholes and levying a 30 percent minimum tax on millionaires.

Likewise the White House has not embraced the idea, as Obama has campaigned for the deficit to be reduced through a “balance” between spending cuts and new revenues.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday a bill that would grant enough flexibility to solve the sequester “can’t be written, not with the size of these cuts, and the fact that they needed to be implemented in such a short period of time in this fiscal year.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, acknowledged Tuesday that giving Obama flexibility on the cuts has split GOP senators.

“There are some members of our conference who are suspicious that administration taking advantage of such flexibility would seek to punish their political enemy,” McConnell told reporters. “Though there are differences of opinion about that, we’re continuing to discuss all of that within our conference.”

Sens. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., developed a bill to grant Pentagon leaders the authority to choose spending cuts, to cushion the reductions in military spending that will be felt quicker than cuts to domestic programs.

Toomey and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., also are pushing a broader bill that would allow spending cut flexibility throughout the bureaucracy.

The measures are aimed at lessening the sequester’s impact on military readiness and reducing or eliminating furloughs of civilian Defense Department workers.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC. Contact Review-Journal reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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