By David Jackson
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - Just three days before $85 billion in automatic budget cuts kick in, President Obama and congressional Republicans jousted again Tuesday over how to avoid the worst consequences of the sequestration.
Obama toured a ship factory in east Virginia that makes nuclear submarines and told workers their jobs are "in jeopardy" unless the Republicans agree to an alternative debt-reduction plan that includes higher tax revenue.
"The sequester will weaken America's economic recovery," Obama told thousands of workers who gathered on the concrete floor of a cavernous building at Newport News Shipbuilding. "It will weaken our military readiness. And it will weaken the basic services that the American people depend on every single day."
Congressional Republicans, opposing any tax hike as a drag on the economy, said it's up to Obama to develop alternative sequester cuts without harming essential services.
"Today, he's off campaigning again in Virginia instead of working with us to resolve the issue," protested Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, criticized Obama's trip to Newport News, saying the president is using "our military men and women as a prop in yet another campaign rally to support his tax hikes."
In his remarks to ship builders, Obama disputed the Republican notion that he has "flexibility" in deciding what to cut.
The sequester requires cuts of $85 billion over seven months, and "there's no smart way to do that," Obama said. He added that it basically boils down to deciding on whether to "close funding for the disabled kid, or the poor kid," or between "this Navy shipyard or some other one."
Obama also discussed the sequestration - as well as immigration and other issues - in a meeting Tuesday afternoon with two key Republican senators (and frequent White House critics), John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, meanwhile, warned senators in testimony Tuesday to avoid the indiscriminate, across-the-board spending cuts, saying they would create a "significant headwind" for economic recovery.
As he has for weeks, Obama will attempt to pressure congressional Republicans into signing off on a revamped plan to help reduce the national debt that now exceeds $16.5 trillion.
A new debt deal should include both spending cuts and higher taxes through ending loopholes and deductions that benefit the wealthy, Obama has said.
To underscore his point, Obama invited a House Republican from Virginia, Scott Rigell, to ride with him to Newport News. Last week, Rigell said the House Republican leadership should at least consider a plan with new tax revenue and "not reject it outright."
On Monday, however, Rigell chided the president for not producing a new written plan of his own to avoid the sequestration. "I'm so deeply disappointed in our president because he is not leading," Rigell told a forum in Virginia Beach, reported theVirginian-Pilot newspaper. "He is not giving us a viable path forward."
Speaker Boehner said the last Republican House passed two plans to cut the debt, and now the Democratic-run Senate should step up with an alternative.
The Senate's top Democrat, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, said his party wants to work with Republicans, but the GOP "would sacrifice 750,000 American jobs rather than ask multimillionaires to pay a penny more."
According to the White House, about 90,000 civilian Defense Department employees would be furloughed in the weeks after sequestration hits. The cutbacks would cancel the maintenance of 11 ships based in Norfolk, and defer ships throughout Virginia.
Newport News Shipbuilding, the site of Obama's visit, is Virginia's largest manufacturing employer and, the White House notes, has a supply base of 5,000 companies located in all 50 states.
The company "illustrates how these indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts would have potentially harmful effects industry wide, impacting jobs, economic demand and our military readiness," the White House said.