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A Democratic congressman from Tennessee blasted some of his House colleagues Wednesday for failing to take seriously the threat of sweeping defense cuts set to take effect March 1.
Citing the low turnout for a House Armed Services Committee hearing, at which the military's top brass were asked to detail the potential fallout from sequestration, Rep. Jim Cooper said the Defense Department faces an imminent budgetary "emergency" yet it appears his fellow lawmakers are not prepared to address it.
"There's not even very good attendance at this hearing," said Cooper, whose state includes Arnold Air Force Base and McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base. "Our men and women in uniform are doing their jobs — we in Congress are not."
Sequestration would impose about $500 billion in spending cuts across the Defense Department over the next decade. It was put into play by the Budget Control Act of 2011, which established mechanisms for automatically cutting federal programs by $1 trillion unless Congress acts to rein in deficit spending.
The predicament is a direct result of political gridlock and a lack of action by some in the federal government, Cooper said. With chiefs of all four services on Capitol Hill to testify, all committee members should have been there to listen, he said.
"Mr. Chairman, this committee — as far as I can tell — is doing little to nothing," Cooper told Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., who heads the committee, which is Congress' largest with 62 members.
McKeon agreed, but said he didn't know why everyone wasn't there. He was quick to point out, though, that most committee members from his party did show up.
"Thirty-one of the 34 Republicans are here," McKeon replied.
A further frustration for Cooper, he said, is Congress' plan to take a week off with the March 1 sequestration deadline so quickly approaching.
"America deserves better," he said. "I think it's up to this committee to do better, and we have precious few days left to do it."