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Va. shipyard latest setting for Obama sequester strategy

With just a few days left to convince Congress to avert the so-called sequester spending cuts, President Obama today travels to a part of the country where the cuts could hit the hardest: Virginia's shipyards.

Mr. Obama is visiting Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries in Newport News, Virginia. If the sequester goes into effect, it could have a direct and clear impact on Virginia's shipbuilding industry -- the Navy would cancel the maintenance of 11 ships in Norfolk, according to the White House, and it would delay and defer other projects in the state. Furthermore, cuts that impact Newport News Shipbuilding could reverberate across the country, since the company has a supplier base in all 50 states.

The sequester will cut around $85 billion in federal spending this year and around $1.1 trillion more over the next 10 years. The White House said Mr. Obama's trip today is an opportunity to highlight the "devastating impact" the sequester will have "if Congressional Republicans fail to compromise to avert the sequester by March 1st."

Republicans have, for the most part, agreed with the White House that the indiscriminate nature of the sequester cuts will damage the economy. When it comes to the Pentagon cuts specifically, some Republicans have been even more determined than the president to avert them. A trio of Republican senators even went on a multi-state campaign last year to warn against the Defense cuts. The sticking point, however, is what to do about it.

Defense spending is, without a doubt, bearing the brunt of the sequester. Even though national defense accounts for about 20 percent of federal spending, it accounts for 50 percent of the sequester cuts. Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned the cuts would trigger the "most serious readiness crisis that this country is going to confront in over a decade."

The state with the most to lose from Pentagon cuts is Virginia, where around 90,000 civilian Defense Department employees could be furloughed. The Army's base operation funding would be cut by about $146 million in Virginia, while funding for Air Force operations in Virginia would be cut by about $8 million.

One Virginia Republican is adamant that he's wanted to avoid this predicament all along.

"Sequestration cuts eclipse any other national security threat facing our nation," Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement yesterday. "Lawmakers in Washington have crossed a red line in our constitutional duty -- outlined in the first sentence of the U.S. Constitution -- to provide for the common defense. I voted against sequestration and I've warned about these cuts for 18 months."

Forbes yesterday introduced a bill to completely remove the defense cuts from the sequester and reduce the sequester by that amount. Most of the discussion in Washington, however, has focused on replacing the sequester cuts with smarter deficit reduction, rather than simply undoing them.

The Senate this week plans on voting on two competing bills to "replace" the sequester, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said today -- the expectation, however, is that neither plan will have the support to pass through Congress. The Democratic plan would replace one year of the sequester with spending cuts and new tax revenues, but tax revenues is a non-starter with Republicans. Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have yet to unveil their plan, but are most likely going to focus on giving departments and agencies more flexibility over how to allocate the sequester cuts.

Today's trip to Virginia is the president's latest effort to lean on Congress to come to a deal to avert the sequester.  In the past week he's delivered remarks to first responders and the nation's governors, conducted interviews with several local TV stations, and summoned Cabinet officials to pressuring lawmakers about the cuts.