COLUMBIA - U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham traversed South Carolina on Tuesday warning about potential across-the-board spending cuts he predicted would produce a hollow military force and devastate military bases in the state.
"Congress is known for doing some pretty dumb things, but this take the prize," the senator said in a telephone interview. "We need to have a sense of urgency about this. January will be here before we know it."
The Republican lawmaker is trying to raise awareness about a possible $1.2 trillion in automatic budget cuts in domestic and military spending, which would be triggered under the Budget Control Act over the next 10 years. The cuts, known in Congress-speak as "sequestration," are due to start in January because a special panel failed to reach a deal last summer to reduce the deficit.
"It would be devastating to South Carolina," Graham said, arguing such a step would amount to as much as a 23 percent cut in the Pentagon budget. He said a prime target would be the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is supposed to be based at the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort and Shaw Air Force Base outside Sumter.
"The F-35 would be terminated," said Graham, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee. "A cut of this magnitude will hollow out the greatest fighting force in the world."
Graham said he isn't against cutting the defense budget, but said any cuts must be made in a responsible fashion. He advocated reductions in the Pentagon's booming ranks of civilian employees and contractors, rather than slicing into the ranks of men and women in uniform.
Graham said he sees reasons to cut some of the Pentagon budget, noting that the current Pentagon budget cuts of $450 billion are tough enough, but that sequestration would add more than $600 billion on top of those cuts,
He said he doesn't believe that raising taxes is the answer. "There are ways to raise revenue without raising taxes," he said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has also termed the potential cuts a dangerous path to follow. But some in Congress are split on the issue, with deficit-cutting tea partyers in the GOP siding with liberal Democrats who said they are ready to allow for military cuts.
Graham began his two-day tour in Greenville, where he toured the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics site with Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston, South Carolina's adjutant general and head of the state's Army and Air National Guard.
He then traveled to Beaufort to meet with leaders at Parris Island and at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort before heading to Charleston for sessions with military officials at Joint Base Charleston and with local community leaders and elected officials.
On Wednesday, Graham is expected to meet with officials at Fort Jackson and local business leaders in Columbia.