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Amid dire predictions, Warner says defense industry shares blame for sequester

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) delivered a message of his own to the defense industry: (Reuters)

As the Obama administration rolled out a fresh round of dire warnings about the impact of looming budget cuts, Sen. Mark R. Warner delivered a message of his own Friday to the defense industry: This is your fault, too.

The threat of automatic reductions to defense and domestic spending on March 1, known as the “sequester,” has prompted Democrats and Republicans to trade blame for the impasse.

At a Northern Virginia Technology Council breakfast in Reston with Warner and Sen. Timothy M. Kaine, the audience of local business executives let both Virginia Democrats know how concerned they were about the cuts and the ripple effect they would have.

But when Cord Sterling, a vice president at the Aerospace Industries Association, asked why it’s taken so long for Congress to get serious on the subject, Warner turned the tables.

Acknowledging that Congress had “muffed this thing” by not striking a bipartisan deficit-reduction deal, Warner said the defense and technology industries share some responsibility.

“Yeah, we ought to get 80, 90, whatever percent of the blame,” Warner said. “But you ought to take some of the blame, too. Because every time there’s been efforts to try to build a broader coalition, to say let’s go ahead and take this on and get out of our individual political foxholes and get out of our individual industry foxholes, most of y’all have said, ‘Well, I don’t want to piss off this guy or that guy or this chairman or that chairman.’ ”

Warner complained that many in the defense and technology communities had failed to support the Campaign to Fix the Debt, a nonpartisan group seeking to mobilize support for a debt deal.

When chief executives of many Fortune 500 companies came together to back the group, Warner said, “the thing that just blows my mind . . . the industry that was most absent from that list was the defense industry. . . . It would have been great if you’d been in the fight in more than an ‘attaboy’ way over the last couple of years.”

Sterling said he was “very surprised” by Warner’s remarks, as his group recognizes that defense spending needs to be part of the broader deficit-reduction solution.Sterling said he thought at least seven chief executives who belong to his group had signed on to the Campaign to Fix the Debt effort.

“To say that we are not participating in it, I would say the facts do not agree with the statement that he made,” Sterling said.

Warner’s remarks came as the White House offered new details about the sequester, which could push 70,000 children out of Head Start, eliminate 2,100 food inspections, yank research grants out of the hands of 12,000 scientists and students, and jeopardize the jobs of 1,000 federal law enforcement officials.

The sequester will require cuts equal to roughly 9 percent for domestic programs for the remainder of the fiscal year and roughly 13 percent for defense programs — “large and arbitrary cuts [that] will have severe impacts across government,” according to Danny Werfel, federal controller at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

In a briefing for reporters, Werfel and other administration officials also offered some nuggets of information about how the sequester might be implemented. Under the law, Werfel said, agency spending must be reduced by $85 billion by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. And each agency will have to determine how to execute that reduction.

“In some cases, you’ll see immediate impacts. And in some cases, agencies will work out those changes to their programs and their structures over time,” Werfel said. “There’s no easy answer to say what the world is going to look like on March 2nd.”We just know that these impacts — while not all of them immediate — if we don’t take action, they will take place.”

Moreover, the sequester requires agencies to cut every account, subaccount, program, project and activity equally, which makes it difficult to avoid cuts to critical services.

“So, for example, FAA, they have to cut resources in a way that’s going to impact the air traffic controller workforce. There’s no way to basically say, well, we’ll move — we’ll try to take all the cuts in this area, like maintenance or custodial work,” Werfel said. “It’s not possible to do that.”

One thing that is clear is that agencies have yet to issue furlough notices, which means federal workers would not be sent home immediately if the sequester hits. Typically, Werfel said, agencies give workers 30 days notice before implementing a furlough.

Ultimately, however, hundreds of thousands of workers are likely to be affected, he said: “If we go past this date, there’s certainly — there’s no way to implement the sequester without significant furloughs of hundreds of thousands of federal employees.”

Lori Montgomery covers U.S. economic policy and the federal budget, focusing on efforts to tame the national debt.

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