(WASHINGTON) — Nineteen months before the combat phase of the war in Afghanistan is set to end, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested Congress take money allocated for that operation and use it to pay off sequester cuts.
With FAA furloughs causing airport delays and headaches across the nation, the Senate Majority Leader announced he intends to move an anti-sequestration bill that would cancel the budget cuts for five months, paid for with what he said were war savings.
“I think we should do something about sequestration,” Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday afternoon. “We should do what was in one of the Ryan budgets; that is, use the Overseas Contingency Fund to delay the implementation of sequestration.”
The Overseas Contingency Operation is the designation of funds in the Department of Defense budget to fund the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. At the start of FY2013, $96.7 billion was allocated for OCO, including money for the State Department and USAID in Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Obama’s proposed FY2014 budget does not yet give a number for OCO, because of delayed decisions about troop levels. The overall cap for OCO through 2021 was set in the 2013 budget at $450 billion.
Less than two weeks ago, Undersecretary of Defense Robert Hale said that earlier plans for OCO underestimated how expensive it would be to wrap up the war and take troops home from Afghanistan.
“We are spending more in our OCO budget than we anticipated two years ago when it was put together, both through the higher operating tempo and higher transportation costs,” Hale said at a Defense Department briefing April 10.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., objected to Reid’s proposal, calling it an accounting gimmick. “Every penny of that money will be borrowed money.”
Reid’s proposal came after senators took to the floor Tuesday to protest sequester-based flight delays, which skyrocketed between Sunday and Monday.
Furloughs for 47,000 Federal Aviation Administration employees went into effect Sunday, causing 1,200 flight delays in the system Monday. That number fell short of the up to 6,700 flights per day the FAA has said could be affected, but it has already caused concern on both sides of the aisle.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blamed “poor planning” and “political motives” for the delays.
“Our goal here shouldn’t be to score political points on the backs of weary travelers, it should be to fix the problem,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Tuesday, citing the FAA’s “mismanagement of this issue.”
Reid, on the floor hours before he announced the bill, spoke more broadly, bringing up other areas where cuts have hurt the public.
“Congress could act now to reverse these cuts without adding a single dollar to the deficit,” Reid said. “We could erase the sequester for the rest of the year, which is a fraction of the savings from winding down these two wars. Using these savings, Congress could avert the most painful and senseless sequester cuts.”
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association decried the furloughs on Tuesday, saying that the FAA is paying some workers overtime to cover for furloughed employees.
“It’s simple math – furloughing controllers earning base while paying others base pay plus an additional 50 percent will not result in savings,” the NATCA said in statement.
The FAA said Tuesday they were putting in place “traffic management initiatives,” such as spacing flights further apart, to allow for low staffing, but those could lead to further delays.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney defended the FAA and the Obama administration.
“The FAA has initiated a series of cost-saving measures … but the fact is 70 percent of the FAA’s operations budget is personnel, so there is simply no way to avoid furloughs,” Carney said at the daily press briefing Tuesday. “If Congress wants to address this matter then they should act, but this is something that only by law Congress can do.”
He went on to say it would take more than just a short-term bill aimed at fixing FAA furloughs to get to the root of the problem with sequestration.
“The fact is there are a number of negative consequences and a Band-Aid fix to this problem, while we will certainly be open to looking at it, does not solve the overall problem,” he said. “The overall problem can and should be solved by embracing the basic principles supported by the American people that we should reduce our deficit in a balanced way.”
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