WASHINGTON (AP) — The top Democrat in the Senate said Tuesday that lawmakers should redouble their efforts to replace looming across-the-board cuts to the Pentagon and domestic programs with alternative spending cuts and tax hikes.
The comments by Majority Leader Harry Reid came amid increasing resignation among both Democrats and Republicans that the across-the-board cuts will soon take effect. The cuts were an element of the so-called fiscal cliff that was partially averted this month with the extension of Bush-era tax cuts.
But the reprieve from spending cuts of 7 percent to the Pentagon and 5 percent to domestic programs was only temporary and will expire March 1. The cuts are known as sequestration in Washington-speak.
Republican controlling the House had led the battle to avert sequestration last year by passing replacement cuts, while Democrats put their faith in high-level budget talks involving President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, — which failed — and in later, successful negotiations between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
But House Republicans now say that the across-the-board cuts provide incentive to Democrats to agree to a broader budget pact and they appear willing to let them take effect — despite having issued dire warnings just last year of their impact on the Pentagon.
Reid said the cuts should be replaced "in short increments" with spending cuts and revenues like repealing oil and gas subsidies that were discussed in earlier negotiations.
"There are many low-hanging pieces of fruit out there that Republicans have said they agreed on previously," Reid said. There's a lot of things we can do out there, and we're going to make an effort to make sure that there is — sequestration is — involves revenue."
Republicans tend to represent states that have more at stake if the cuts take effects. Many GOP-dominated southern states, for instance, have major defense installations. And defense hawks warn that the cuts could cripple the military as problems fester around the world in places like Afghanistan, Iran and Syria.
"If you believe the Defense Department, (and Defense Secretary Leon) Panetta, we're destroying the finest military in the world at a time when we need it most," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "I can't explain it. It is beyond my ability to explain it to people."