WASHINGTON -- Faced with massive spending cuts that are set to take effect in just over three weeks, two Republican lawmakers said on Tuesday that they would support President Barack Obama's call for a short-term deficit reduction package that combines spending cuts with tax revenues to delay the sequester, rather than allow it to kick in.
Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) told The Huffington Post that their concerns over looming defense cuts contained in the sequester are too great to comfortably let the $1.2 trillion package take its toll.
"I think any alternative is better than allowing the sequester to take effect," said Rooney. "If you could say would you rather hollow out the Pentagon or increase taxes, I would support the latter to make sure that we didn't lose our capability to maintain our superpower status."
"There's so much angst out there," said Bishop, pointing to the furlough notices already hitting workers across government agencies in anticipation of the March 1 deadline. "It's already creating a harm. Obviously postponing the implementation is better than implementing the cuts."
Both lawmakers maintained that their preference is for a long-term solution that would replace the sequester through spending cuts mostly drawn from entitlement reform. But in the absence of a deal in Congress, they conceded that it would be better to go along with the president's suggestion and postpone the threat of the sequester -- in particular cuts to the defense budget.
As HuffPost reported last week, as it currently stands, modified sequestration this year will slice discretionary defense spending by 7.3 percent and discretionary non-defense spending by 5.1 percent, along with a 2 percent cut to Medicare. The non-defense cuts will likely hit community development and housing assistance, states' education grants and a number of federal agencies, although some programs, such as Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps and children's health insurance, are exempt.
Obama on Tuesday urged Congress to continue to work toward a long-term deficit reduction plan, but requested that lawmakers pass a smaller package of spending cuts and revenue-raisers that would delay the sequester by a few months if they are unable to reach an agreement.
"There's no reason that the jobs of thousands of American who work in national security or education or clean energy, not to mention the growth of the entire economy, should be put in jeopardy just because folks in Washington couldn't come together to eliminate a few special interest tax loopholes or government programs that we agree need some reform," Obama said.
Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate responded swiftly, essentially declaring tax hikes off the table.
“President Obama first proposed the sequester and insisted it become law," said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in a statement. "Republicans have twice voted to replace these arbitrary cuts with common-sense cuts and reforms that protect our national defense. We believe there is a better way to reduce the deficit, but Americans do not support sacrificing real spending cuts for more tax hikes.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) penned an op-ed for Reuters in which he knocked Obama's "unserious attitude" and urged Washington Democrats to "get real."
Bishop was reluctant to get behind tax increases, but he noted there are both liberal and conservative members of Congress who would like to see the sequester go through, a possibility he said would be "devastating to the military." The Utah congressman added that while Obama has lacked leadership on the subject, if there were an option to postpone sequestration again, he would support it.
For Rooney, the issue is personal. The former Army judge advocate general and West Point instructor said sequestration was never intended to happen.
"Nobody would allow that much in defense cuts, so we went along with it. We believed that the super committee would come to an agreement, because surely they would not hollow out our military," Rooney said. "Well, guess what? They didn't come to an agreement, here we are and now all of a sudden it's sequestration is kind of OK on our side?"
Rooney said he had expressed his concerns to House GOP leadership and would continue to do so, but at the same time noted a "reckless" trend among some members of his caucus to prioritize extracting cuts from the government in the short term, while ignoring what's best over the long term.
"The way that we find a balanced budget, I think, is through entitlement reform, and we're not doing that," Rooney said. "We're just taking what we can get at this point, and that's reckless."
He argued that Obama "might be surprised by the support he might get from people that are pro-defense on our side if it were something reasonable and it was long term."
"The devil's in the details, but generally speaking short term is not preferential, but it's better than letting the sequester take effect, even if it was coupled with closing tax loopholes to get more revenue," Rooney said, adding that he didn't want to be held accountable for the damaging effects of the sequester.
"What's the alternative? A hollowed out Pentagon that can't do the things that Americans expect it to do," he said. "A year from now, or two years from now after that happens, you can definitively go back to the point where we said that we wanted to do this, and we were allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. I don't want to have that on my hands."
UPDATE Feb. 7 -- Bishop's office contacted the Huffington Post to clarify the congressman's position on a short-term sequester delay, stating that he would not support a proposal that includes new tax revenues.
"Congressman Bishop fully supports a delay or total elimination of sequestration and would back the President in making this happen," Bishop spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin said in an email. "However, Congressman Bishop absolutely opposes the new tax revenue component of the President’s proposal, especially given that the President has already succeeded in obtaining tax increases this year."
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