March 2, 2013

Federal budget stalemate: Defense workers brace for the worst

Federal spending cuts are likely to have real consequences for military employees and the businesses that rely on them.

By STEVE PEOPLES The Associated Press

They don't care which side caused Washington's latest crisis. Five hundred miles from Capitol Hill, the men and women of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery are worrying about paying rent, searching for new jobs and caring for sick loved ones.

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Portsmouth Naval Shipyard workers Kevin Do, left, Don Hanson and Paul O’Connor sit at nearby Mojo’s BBQ in Kittery on Wednesday. They and other defense workers are bracing for reduced pay and possible layoffs due to federal budget cuts enacted Friday.

The Associated Press

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Even as automatic spending cuts take effect by midnight Friday, the White House and Congress are looking ahead to several more budget battles in the coming weeks. They include:

Avoiding government shutdown: Lawmakers and the White House face a March 27 deadline to prevent a partial shutdown of government agencies. That's when a six-month stopgap funding bill passed last fall runs out. The GOP-led House plans the week of March 4 to approve a plan that would include new line-by-line budgets for the Pentagon and the Veterans Administration while keeping domestic agencies on autopilot, frozen at last year's levels. Senate Democrats would like to incorporate more detailed spending bills for domestic programs but may face opposition from Republicans wary of concocting a foot-tall "omnibus" spending bill.

2014 budget plans: In mid-March, both the House and Senate are expected to debate rival budget plans. These budget resolutions are non-binding but represent an important statement of party principles. The House GOP plan promises to come to balance by the end of a decade without raising taxes; the alternative by Senate Democrats is expected to mix in new revenues and not show balance. The two sides are not expected to be able to reconcile their differences, which promises to make it difficult to pursue follow up legislation like the 12 annual appropriations bills.

Obama's budget.: In mid-late March, Obama is expected to release his budget - over a month behind schedule. Budget observers will be watching for new initiatives that might help spur budget negotiations. But if he follows past practice, Obama's budget will take few, if any, political risks.

-- The Associated Press

Almost the entire work force, more than 5,000 along the Maine and New Hampshire seacoast, is preparing to lose the equivalent of a month's pay because of Congress' inability to resolve another budget stalemate.

Orsom "Butch" Huntley, 63, a shipyard employee for three decades, is already living paycheck to paycheck while caring for his terminally ill wife.

"Congress doesn't look at the individual. They just look at the bottom line. And it just really makes it tough to think we're just a number to them," Huntley, a computer engineer, said this week in a restaurant outside the shipyard gate. "It's going to be totally devastating."

The fear is consuming military communities as the nation braces for budget cuts designed to be so painful they would compel Congress to find better ways to cut the federal deficit. President Obama and governors from across the nation intensified calls for compromise in recent days to meet Friday's deadline.

Defense officials warn of diminished military readiness as the cuts begin to bite.

Economists warn of damage to a delicate economic recovery. Federal officials warn of travel delays, slashed preschool access and closed national parks.

But in small towns whose economies are deeply tied to the military, there is a human impact that breeds anger and fear.

Across the table from Huntley, facilities engineer Kevin Do explains that he and his wife -- also a shipyard employee -- have already delayed plans to buy their first home because of uncertainty created by Washington. With a 4-year-old son in daycare, he's now looking for part-time construction work to help pay the bills, even if it means working seven days a week.

"We basically put the American dream on hold," Do said.

Preparing for a worst-case scenario, Navy officials have plans to force mandatory furloughs on roughly 186,000 civilian employees across the country.

People like Huntley and Do would lose 22 paid days between April and October, or roughly 20 percent of their pay. Shipyards from coast to coast have outlined cost-cutting plans to delay huge maintenance contracts on nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers.

Polling suggests that some Americans are still unaware of the looming cuts, known in Washington speak as a "sequester," but the debate is well known to federal employees and the huge network of businesses, contractors and communities that serve Navy shipyards and military bases.

Virtually every nearby restaurant, grocery store or car dealer is aware of the looming cuts.

Some states are facing more pain than others. Oklahoma has five military installations. Chris Spiwak, owner of Chequers Restaurant and Pub outside Tinker Air Force Base in Midwest City, said he's afraid he might have to lay off an employee or two.

"We have customers telling us that if they're furloughed, they won't be coming in as much," Spiwak said. "That's their expendable income. They'll be eating at home or bringing their lunches."

And there is widespread uncertainty in Virginia, where many of the 21,000 workers at Newport News Shipbuilding are bracing for the worst. Obama addressed shipyard workers this week about the dangers of the spending cuts.

"Everybody's nervous, worried about what's going to happen," Ronnie Hall, a 27-year-old fleet support apprentice, said before the president spoke.

The president, who has pushed for a compromise deficit package of spending cuts and new tax revenue, seems to have the upper hand among the public over the standoff.

A Pew/USA Today poll this week found 49 percent of Americans would blame congressional Republicans if Obama and Congress couldn't strike a deal. Thirty-one percent would blame Obama, 11 percent would blame both and 8 percent were unsure.

On federal spending in general, an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Wednesday found significantly more Americans in favor of Obama's handling of federal spending than Republicans in Congress, although neither side earned high marks. Half of the country disapproved of Obama's handling of the issue, while two-thirds disapproved of congressional Republicans.

The political stakes meant little to the workers gathered outside the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard this week during their lunch break.

"Both sides put us here," said Huntley, who had already lost his house because of his wife's medical bills. "At my age I should be in my golden years. As the guys around me say, the golden years have taken the gold and just left me the years."

Next up for Congress and the White House is how to avoid Washington's coming crisis, which threatens a government shutdown after March 27, when a six-month spending bill enacted last year expires.

In Kittery, Do offered elected leaders a reminder: "They forget it's faces and families," he said. "There's a cloud over a lot of people."


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