GREAT FALLS – U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg warned at a Monday town hall meeting that pending defense cuts would hurt the Great Falls economy — and erode the nation’s ability to defend itself.
Rehberg spoke to about 100 Great Falls residents attending the forum, and sought feedback on the across-the-board defense cuts of less than 10 percent scheduled to take place. The cuts come from a bipartisan 2011 deal that forced spending reductions if Congress was unable to reach a broader deficit-reduction deal.
Rehberg, like other Republicans, is blaming President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats for failing to reach a deal that protects defense. The Democrats wanted a tax increase on the wealthy as part of the deficit reductions, and blame the GOP for resisting compromise.
“The deal was cooked up in the White House and brought to Congress,” Rehberg said.
Rehberg said $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts are coming next year, called sequestration, and half is mandated to come out of the Department of Defense. Rehberg said he was opposed to the bill that prompted last year’s bipartisan budget negotiation “supercommittee,” which he argued was doomed to failure.
Rehberg, a Republican, is challenging U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, in what so far has been an intense battle.
Tester campaign spokesman Aaron Murphy criticized the town hall as a “taxpayer-funded political stunt.” The Tester campaign argued that Rehberg was in Congress, before Tester was elected in 2006, at a time when the Democrats say other cuts were made to Malmstrom Air Force Base in northern Montana.
The Monday event was billed as part of the “Defending our Defenders” town hall series orchestrated by House Republicans seeking to characterize the effect of the cuts.
Great Falls businesses and leaders worry the scheduled automatic cuts would disproportionally hurt the local Air Force base and National Guard facilities. They said that would lead to a loss of many local jobs at supporting businesses.
About 100 residents attended the forum, including some who said defense spending should be cut.
Rehberg said he thinks defense spending needs to be included as part of reduction plans but said he is opposed to the way the Budget Control Act of 2011 mandates across-the-board cuts. He suggested waste such as “$500 hammers and $1,000 toilet seats” should instead be targeted.
Rehberg assembled a panel that included defense expert James Jay Carafano from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank and fellow U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-VA. Forbes is chairman of the Readiness Subcommittee of the House Committee on Armed Services.
The conservatives also argued that the Obama administration policies to reduce the nation’s nuclear arsenal are dangerous. Local businesses who help service the Malmstrom Air Force Base operations agreed.
“We don’t have to solve budget problems by making us less safe,” Carafano said.
But some in the crowd were not receptive to the message. Several stood up and suggested Defense cuts are needed to balance spending, while one man shouted from the audience asking, “Are we the policeman of the world?”
Ray Jergeson of Great Falls, who said he was in the Air Force in the early 1960s, argued there has been local resistance to defense cuts as long ago as when forts were being closed after the wars in the 1800s against Native American tribes. He argued Marines stationed at Okinawa are no longer needed there and should instead be stationed in Montana to replace nuclear missiles he is opposed to.
“There is always the issue of hurting the local economy when the military changes its mission,” Jergeson said.
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