U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, met with Scott Air Force leaders Monday to try to soften the blow of looming across the board federal budget cuts.
But Durbin said he hasn't yet given up hope of a negotiated settlement before Friday to avert nearly 10 percent across-the-board "sequester" cuts. He said the Senate as soon as Tuesday could consider an alternative deal that would include an increase in capital gains taxes and smaller spending cuts.
"We can close a tax loophole that will affect virtually no working American families," Durbin said. "It's what (billionaire investor) Warren Buffett suggested. It's not unreasonable to say to the wealthiest Americans that some of the tax loopholes you get, well we can't afford that anymore."
Durbin said the increased revenue coupled with more modest cuts now and bigger ones later would be much better for the economy.
"Cuts are important," Durbin said, "but when you do it is also important. Right now we're in a slow growth period. We need to try to position ourselves for consistent economic growth."
Durbin, the new chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, and Enyart met with Base Commander Col. David Almand and other top Scott officers. The group discussed ways to ensure the base's long-term strength and security. They also talked about civilian furloughs and layoffs that could result from sequestration.
"Scott is a crucial transportation hub for our nation's Armed Forces, and today's meeting allowed me to hear firsthand the challenges and opportunities facing this important base," Durbin said. "As we prepare to examine our country's long-term financial heath, I intend to make sure Scott's missions are protected and our men and women on base have the resources and support they need to do their jobs well while experiencing a good quality of life."
Enyart said base leaders asked, if the sequester cuts happen, for the freedom to make targeted cuts in areas that won't impact national security instead of across the board cuts. Enyart pledged to work to allow military leaders to do so should bi-partisan talks not come up with an alternative budget cut package.
"During my 35 years in the military, I tackled problems at their root," Enyart said. "Washington's artificial deadline set by sequestration over a year ago is not leadership. Our community in Southern Illinois cannot afford to pay the price of these political games, but we can show Washington the importance of the values we share as neighbors and the power of cooperation."
Enyart added: " I will be taking back the concerns from Scott Air Force Base and our local employers so Washington can hear the real implications of Congress' dysfunction."
Scott Air Force Base is one of the region's largest employers with a workforce of more than 5,000 civilians in addition to 7,000 military personnel, and contributes an estimated $3 billion a year to the area's economy.
Like federal employees across the country including everyone from air traffic controllers to national park workers, about 4,500 of the civilian workers at Scott Air Force could face furloughs one day a week through the end of the federal government fiscal year Sept. 30. The other 500 civilian workers are deemed to be essential to national security and they would not be furloughed.
Enyart said he had no feel for whether a compromise could be reached by Friday.
"It would seem to be in the best interests of everyone," Enyart said. "I hope we can get it done. But no one should be their paycheck on it."
Durbin's Defense Appropriations Subcommittee oversees funding for the military and intelligence community, the nation's national security requirements and the daily needs of more than two million active duty and reserve servicemembers. The Subcommittee also oversees funding for Overseas Contingency Operations, including the war in Afghanistan and other military operations worldwide. All told, the Subcommittee controls nearly half of the nation's annual discretionary budget.
The Senate this week is set to vote on the American Family Economic Protection Act, which will eliminate sequestration cuts through 2014. The bill replaces those sequestration cuts with $55 billion in targeted spending reductions coupled with an equal amount of new revenue gained by adopting the Buffet Rule -- which ensures millionaires cannot pay a smaller share of their income in taxes than middle-class families -- and eliminating an oil industry tax loophole and deductions for companies that ship jobs overseas. With these provisions, the Protection Act would not add to the federal government's long-term deficit.
"Sequestration is an economic challenge as much as a military one, and it will punish most the people who can least withstand it," Durbin said. "Few of my colleagues in either party want to see sequestration go through, and Senate Democrats have developed a plan to avoid it. We'll be voting on that plan in a matter of days. I intend to do everything I can to keep these cuts from happening, and to give our Armed Forces the support they need to keep functioning at the highest level."