NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. — A trio of Republican senators sounded the alarm over billions of dollars' worth of "catastrophic" and "draconian" military budget cuts set to take effect in January, telling an audience Monday that more time was needed for negotiations.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham and New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte visited Nellis Air Force Base before taking their multi-state "Preserving America's Strength" town hall tour to a nearby community college Monday afternoon. The tour is focusing on a planned budget sequester that would impose $110 billion in federal spending cuts on Jan. 2.
"It would undermine our national security for generations, and the world has not become a safer place," Ayotte said, citing threats from Iran and elsewhere. "This is not a time for us to reduce our forces."
Sequestration is a series of automatic, across-the-board federal cuts that will take effect if Congress doesn't reach a budget solution in the next few months. First year cuts are split evenly between defense and domestic programs.
Graham said it would reduce training and equipment investments, hinting that American technology would fall behind the nation's enemies.
"I don't want any more war – it's a terrible thing," he said. "But the worst thing about going to war is losing a war."
Under sequestration, Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps and veterans' benefits would be exempt. President Barack Obama recently announced military personnel won't be affected – something the senators said needs to be back on the table.
The planned sequester is an effort to ease the federal deficit and trim $1.2 trillion over the next decade, and was the default plan if other compromises failed.
Last August, congressional Republicans demanded spending cuts in response to Obama's plea to raise the nation's borrowing authority by $2.1 trillion. As part of the negotiated deal, the two sides agreed on $900 billion in spending cuts and the creation of the bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. When that so-called "supercommittee" was unable to reach a consensus on a deficit-cutting plan last November, the countdown toward sequestration began.
The senators called the measure a bipartisan mistake in need of a bipartisan solution.
The Obama administration says the president put forth two plans to avoid sequestration, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other Democrats argue that Republicans easily could spare the military from the reductions in projected spending if they didn't choose "to put millionaires ahead of the military."
"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 said in a statement issued before the town hall.
Graham told the audience that he was willing to close loopholes and eliminate certain deductions, but the senators stopped short of supporting a tax increase.
"We're willing to sit down and talk and negotiate because we realize our national security is at stake here," McCain said. "But to say that the precondition is that we have to raise tax rates on the rich – another exercise in demagoguery – is not the way you begin negotiations."
The Republicans' stop in the swing state of Nevada is an effort to the latest in a series of town halls that included Florida, North Carolina and New Hampshire.
At the afternoon event, which drew a few dozen people, some criticized the senators for using scare tactics in an election year battle.
"We need to cut the deficit, and not scam and scare the American public into thinking we're not safe," said Las Vegas resident Mary Lou Anderson.