FAYETTEVILLE — Former GOP presidential candidate John McCain led a delegation of GOP senators Monday in urging Democratic President Barack Obama to reopen budget negotiations to avoid what he called “devastating” defense cuts.
Appearing near the sprawling Fort Bragg Army base, the senator said the president had an obligation to help to work out an agreement with Congress to avoid the deep cuts to the military that will automatically go into effect in January unless a deal can be found.
“The president so far divorced himself completely from any negotiation,” McCain told about 200 people at Fayetteville Technical Community College. “The job and title of president of the United States is commander in chief. So facing draconian cuts, it seems to me that the president of the United States ought to at least be involved in trying to prevent this.”
McCain, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte, all members of the Senate Armed Services committee held a “town hall” in Fayetteville, one of several they are holding this week in the presidential battleground states of Florida, Virginia and New Hampshire. McCain and Graham are two of the GOP’s leading voices on national security and Ayotte is regarded as a potential vice presidential running mate for Mitt Romney and a rising star within the party.
Under a deficit plan agreed to last year, the government will be forced to cut $110 billion in spending evenly divided between military and non-defense programs. It is estimated that it would lead to $500 billion in defense cuts over a 10-year period.
The expected cuts in defense – a budget process called sequestration – is emerging as a major issue in the fall campaign.
Last week, Romney rapped Obama’s “insistence on slashing our military to pay the tab for your irresponsible spending (that) could see over 2000,000 troops forced from service.” Obama responded in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars saying the GOP would “rather protect tax cuts for some of the wealthiest Americans, even if it risks big cuts in our military.”
Republican independent groups are expected to use the issue against Democratic congressional candidates in North Carolina and other states, according The Hill, a Washington D.C. publication.
As campaign events go, Monday’s event was more soft-sell than hard-line partisan politics. The criticism of Obama was mild. And Graham in particular said congressional Republicans were equally culpable of failing to reach a budget agreement with the Democrats.
“The Republican Party is just as responsible for getting us in this mess as the Democratic Party,” Graham said. “We got our finger prints all over this.”
Graham said that to keep the nation’s military strong, the three senators were willing to seek some compromise with the Democrats, such as looking at some of the deficit reduction proposals outlined last year by the Bowles-Simpson Commission headed by Erskine Bowles, the former University of North Carolina president.
“You will never convince me that if President Obama called John McCain to the White House tomorrow and said, ‘John, we’ve had our differences, but let’s work together and let’s get this fixed,’ they couldn’t do it in 24 hours,” Graham said. “So Barack Obama, call John McCain.”
He also urged Fayetteville leaders to bring “Richard and Kay,” referring to Sens. Richard Burr, R-Winston-Salem, and Kay Hagan, D-Greensboro, together to their city and get them working on the problem.
Citing a George Mason University study, the senators said that the cuts could put at risk 11,859 jobs in North Carolina, which has a heavy military presence, and have a $1 billion effect on the state’s economy. McCain said it could hurt military contractors in the Research Triangle Park.
North Carolina has the third largest military presence in the country with 124,400 active military personnel.
“What we have to do,” McCain said, “is not too complicated. It is to have the president of the United States and members of Congress sit down together and work this out and avert this terrible terrible calamity that I think could impact our defense for years.”
Val Applewhite, a Fayetteville city councilwoman who attended the town hall said, “It felt like a pep rally to me. I’m not saying they are not concerned about the military and veterans. I am a veteran.”
Applewhite, a Democrat, said she heard not solutions from the Republican senators, other than the suggestion that Obama should call McCain.
“The president and Congress have not been able to get on the same page,” Applewhite said. “It’s obvious that the president has a responsibility to fix this, but Congress does as well.”