Fayetteville, N.C. — Both U.S. senators from North Carolina say military readiness is a top priority, even as drastic budget cuts known as “the sequester” threaten it.
Speaking Tuesday at a defense trade show in Fayetteville, Sens. Kay Hagan and Richard Burr said they don’t want to see the across-the-board budget cuts drag on.
Hagan described the sequester as "a poison pill" and quoted one of her colleagues, who called it "stupid on steroids."
"The Senate has a budget. The House has a budget,” said Hagan, a Democrat. “We’re trying to appoint conferees in the Senate so we can come together and meet with the House, form a budget and do away with this sequester.”
Hagan and Burr appeared on stage together at Fayetteville Technical Community College for the 12th annual North Carolina Defense and Economic Development Trade Show. The show, which drew about 700 people, is designed to help businesses snag federal government contracts.
With Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, the military is big business in North Carolina. But the automatic spending cuts under the sequester have led to furloughs of more than 8,000 civilian defense employees at Fort Bragg alone.
The defense budget faces another $52 billion cut this fall. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has warned of "serious damage" to the military if Congress doesn't act.
The senators said they are confident that politics won't compromise America’s military might.
"I talked with Secretary Hagel on the phone last night," said Burr, a Republican. "I'm convinced that as we bring our strength down to the levels that are targeted, that it's not going to be as big of a strain on the budget."
He said the military has to be "smarter and faster and cheaper" if the nation is serious about reducing the deficit.
Hagan said she wants to make sure the defense presence in North Carolina gets bigger, even while the federal defense budget gets smaller.
Easing the burden, the Pentagon moved Tuesday to cut the number of unpaid furlough days for civilian employees from 11 to six after finding $1.5 billion in savings. Burr said he can sympathize: His son is a furloughed employee at the Department of Defense.
"My hope is that as we move into the next calendar year, furloughs are not the subject of conversation," Burr said. "But living within a tight budget is going to be a challenge."
Contractors who attended the trade show said they are definitely feeling the impact of the sequester.
"We've had some cutbacks, and we'll probably also have cutbacks at the end of the year," said Donna Wiker of BAE Systems, an aerospace company.
"It trickles down to quite a few people," she said. "At our company, there are people who have a lot of years in. To think of this and losing your job after all these years, it's definitely hurting BAE systems."
James Macdonell, with SEPI Engineering & Construction of Raleigh, said there are fewer contracting opportunities with the federal government as a result of the budget cuts.
"The first concern would be the uncertainty in the upcoming market – not knowing where federal money is going to be spent on construction and engineering projects," he said.