Thanks, but no thanks.
That's the message some Democratic lawmakers are sending to Senate Republican hawks as they hit the road to warn constituents about the so-called "fiscal cliff" -- more than $1 trillion in automatic spending cuts due to go into effect in early January.
Republican senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire on Monday kicked off a "Preserving America's Strength" tour, a two-day swing with town hall meetings in four battleground states that they said would be most affected by the automatic cuts, known as sequestration.
The GOP senators had invited their Democratic colleagues to appear alongside them in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and New Hampshire. But as of Monday evening, all five of the Democratic senators in the anti-sequestration roadshow's path had declined. Most cited commitments on Capitol Hill while the Senate is still in session.
Retiring Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) was more pointed.
"Senators Ayotte, Graham and McCain could be making better use of their time by working across party lines to avert arbitrary cuts to defense programs instead of appearing at staged events in three or four swing states for obvious political reasons," Webb, the subcommittee chairman on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. "Once these politically motivated, staged events run their course, I am looking forward to beginning a bipartisan effort to achieve a responsible solution to our pressing fiscal challenges.”
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) -- who commended the Senate defense hawks' efforts in a two-page letter last week -- was absent as Ayotte, Graham and McCain started their day in Tampa on Monday morning.
Nelson's letter promises "bipartisan cooperation" as Congress seeks a legislative solution to the fiscal cliff and puts him on the record as sympathetic to those publicizing the sequester fight amid a reelection campaign animated by Florida's thousands of military employees and retirees.
Last week, Ayotte insisted that she, Graham and McCain are not out to highlight only a Republican sacred cow -- defense spending -- with their four-state tour.
"What we hope to accomplish is to bring people to the table to say, 'This has to be done now,'" Ayotte told The Huffington Post. "This shouldn't be punted to a lame-duck session, and it should be done now because that would be the right thing to do."
Questions about the trip's political motivations first arose last week after McCain spokesman Brian Rogers told The Hill that some members of his Senate staff would appear at the town hall meetings. Because the town hall meetings are happening outside of senators' home states, they must use campaign resources to pay for travel costs. That long-standing rule led Rogers to withdraw his statement and yank all Senate aides from the four-state swing.
As Ayotte, Graham and McCain readied for their stop in Norfolk, Va., on Monday evening, more than 100 employees of local defense contractors assembled as part of the Northern Virginia Stop Sequestration Rally.
In a brief speech, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell avoided pointing the political finger. Instead, he reminded more than 100 employees of local defense contractors that they are facing "unprecedented uncertainty" about whether the fiscal cliff can be averted -- and their jobs can be saved.
McDonnell's address received a polite reception from "STOP SEQUESTRATION NOW" sign-wavers gathered in a mid-size ballroom at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in suburban Washington.
More than 200,000 positions are at risk in Virginia if sequestration goes into effect, according to a slideshow that flashed on two projector screens flanking the rally stage. In front of one of them: a countdown clock ticking off each second until Jan. 1, 2013.
Aerospace sector employee Uve Hodgins called sequestration an "economic issue" that transcends the sometimes rigid partisanship of Washington.
"We're trying to keep it neutral, apolitical and friendly," Hodgins said. "People who would be affected by sequestration are from both parties."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred incorrectly to Webb as the "former" subcommittee chairman. He is the current chairman.
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