WASHINGTON — The Senate's Democratic leader insisted on Thursday that if House Republicans desperately want to avert automatic cuts to the military, they have to compromise and make tax increases part of any solution.
In a biting letter to the GOP members of the House Armed Services Committee, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he would like to come up with an alternative "sooner rather than later" to the $1.2 trillion across-the-board cuts in domestic and military programs that kick in Jan. 2. But Reid argued that it will only happen if the GOP relents on closing tax loopholes to raise revenues.
"Given your concern about sequestration, I would encourage you to focus your energy on convincing Republicans that forging a balanced compromise that protects the middle class is more important than adhering to the Tea Party's rigid, extreme ideology," Reid wrote.
Members of the Armed Services Committee, led by Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., had written to Reid on June 27 demanding that he offer a plan to avoid the automatic cuts or stop blocking Republican-backed proposals to address the issue. Among those plans is the House-passed legislation that cuts food stamps, benefits for federal workers and other social services programs to spare defense. Another targets federal employees. Neither has Democratic support.
"Unless you allow a plan to resolve sequestration to come to the Senate floor, you will not only force the automatic cuts to your domestic agenda, but you will bear responsibility for the morally unconscionable outcome that breaks faith with our service members and their families," the Republicans wrote to Reid.
Sequestration is the term often used for the across-the-board reductions.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned about the meat-ax approach of the automatic cuts, arguing it would hollow out the force. The cuts would come on top of a $492 billion reduction in defense over 10 years that President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans agreed to last summer. That law created a special bipartisan committee to come up with an alternative to the $1.2 trillion cuts, but the panel failed to agree on a plan and the countdown clock began on slashing spending across-the-board.
In his letter, Reid sarcastically pointed out that many Republicans voted for the cuts. McKeon has said he regrets his vote.
"Thank you for your letter urging the Senate to renege on spending cuts included in the Bipartisan Budget Control Act," the Democrat wrote.
Shortly after the letter's release, McKeon fired back.
"While the House made tough choices and acted to resolve the first year of sequestration, Senator Reid has seen fit only to posture and preen," he said in a statement. "That is unworthy of his office, of his constituents, and of the fine deliberative traditions in the Senate. It is time for him to get to work."
The rancorous tone of the letters and comments reflected the deep divide in Congress over issues, that if unresolved, could threaten the struggling economy. Lawmakers face critical decisions on whether to extend the expiring Bush tax cuts, raise the nation's borrowing authority and find a way to avert the automatic cuts. Real action is not expected until after the November elections during a lame-duck congressional session.
Various groups of senators have been trying to come up with a resolution.
Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Thursday that he has been talking privately with the panel's chairman, Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and other lawmakers about various options to avert the cuts, including a $110 billion, one-year plan that would include closing tax loopholes.
"The secretary of defense has said the cuts would be devastating to national security," McCain told a handful of reporters. "Then I have to keep trying."
McCain said it was imperative that they come up with some plan before the congressional break in August.
He faces a tough challenge in securing strong bipartisan support, a reality underscored by House Speaker John Boehner's comments earlier in the day. The Ohio Republican said closing tax loopholes should be part of a deal for tax reform rather than a way to avert the defense cuts.
"Raising taxes in a weak economy is not a good idea. If we're serious about bringing down rates, both corporate rates and personal rates, closing those loopholes, those special deals and other credits that are in the tax code, needs to come as part of overall tax reform," Boehner said.
Associated Press writer Jim Abrams contributed to this report.