Lawmakers looking for deal to halt defense cuts

Washington — Connecticut lawmakers have mixed feelings about a proposal that’s been floated on Capitol Hill that would put off for six months looming deep cuts to the Pentagon’s budget that would likely cost Connecticut defense jobs.

Some defense contractors say they could support the plan to avoid the automatic cuts, known as sequestration, by finding $55 billion in targeted savings. But others, including Connecticut’s Pratt & Whitney, say a permanent solution to the federal budget mess should be found immediately.

“Both presidential candidates say that sequestration would be a serious mistake and Pratt & Whitney sees no need in delaying action on what all agree should be done,” a statement from the company said. “Congress should act as soon as possible to avert this looming crisis and not kick the can down the road for another six months.”

The proposal was fashioned by a bipartisan group of senators trying to prevent a “fiscal cliff” that looms because Congress agreed to across-the-board cuts, half of those to the defense budget, in a deal to raise the debt limit last year.

Those automatic spending cuts, coupled with the expiration of Bush era tax breaks at the end of the year, would cost the U.S. economy an estimated $600 billion, plunging the nation into another recession, the Congressional Budget Office has said.

The impact of that “fiscal cliff” would hit Connecticut and other states dependent on the defense industry especially hard.

The only way to prevent sequestration is for Congress to find $109 billion in savings in the federal budget for 2013. A bitterly divided Congress has been unable to do so.

Under the compromise proposal, cuts to federal programs would be chosen in a bipartisan manner. They would total $55 billion — but some of those cuts could be offset by revenues derived by closing “tax loopholes” for certain companies and the wealthy.

The deal would have to be approved in a lame duck session of Congress after the elections to prevent sequestration from taking effect Jan. 2.

But if Republican Mitt Romney wins the race for the White House, any solution to the sequester problem might be postponed until after his inauguration.

The support of Connecticut lawmakers, and other Democrats from states with strong defense industries, will be needed for Congress to approve a solution to the sequestration problem — either the one making the rounds of Congress now or a future compromise.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said he gives “kudos” to the senators trying to find a bipartisan solution but said the deal has to be “a real down payment on deficit reduction” to win his backing and to stop the U.S. credit rating from continuing to fall.

“But I’ll definitely support an honest compromise,” said Courtney, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, said she hoped there would be a deal in the lame duck session to avoid sequestration.

But she said she would not support an agreement that would cut anti-hunger and nutrition programs, education, basic research or health care.

“When it comes to avoiding the across-the-board cuts and addressing the deficit, the bottom line is Congress must not balance the budget on the backs of the poor and most vulnerable in our society,” DeLauro said. “I am hopeful that after the election, members of both parties will come together and find a balanced approach to stop any indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts.”

For Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., any further cuts of the defense budget are off the table.

“Because so much has already been taken from the U.S. military, I will oppose any deal that cuts $1 more from our national defense,” Lieberman said in an emailed release Friday. “America’s security cannot afford it.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he’s open to a six-month solution “if it’s a balanced approach,” but prefers a longer-term plan that would cut $4 trillion from the federal budget over 10 years, a deficit cutting plan supported by President Obama.

“A short-term solution perpetuates uncertainty,” Blumenthal said. “I meet every day with business people who are postponing hiring decisions because they are uncertain about what Washington will do.”

Sikorsky declined to comment on the plan.

“We don’t comment on proposals, so I will decline to comment on this one,” said Sikorsky spokesman Paul Jackson.

But, with sequestration looming, Sikorsky may be one of many defense contractors that send out pink slips to their workers early next month to comply with a federal law that says contractors must give 60-day warnings to employees when a federal contract is endangered.

“We’re in close contact with our customers and government officials, and at this time have not made any decision about … notices,” Jackson said. “We continue to monitor, review and follow federal agency guidance to ensure we comply with the law and keep our employees informed.”