East Tennesseans in Congress said Wednesday it is probably too late to stop automatic federal spending cuts from taking effect on Friday, but they argued the impact will be far less harmful than the Obama administration has led Americans to believe.
"The cuts have been exaggerated, almost to the point of becoming ridiculous," said U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., a Knoxville Republican.
A White House report released earlier this week indicated Tennessee would lose nearly $15 million in school funding, dramatic cuts would be required to the state's social and health-care programs for the needy, and critical funding for police, environmental and defense programs would be in jeopardy if the $85 billion in spending cuts kick in as scheduled across government agencies.
The Federal Aviation Administration also has warned that the overnight shift at McGhee Tyson Airport's control tower would have to be eliminated. Other reports have suggested the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge would have to furlough 700 to 1,000 of its 4,500 employees for up to six months and that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would have to close campgrounds and picnic areas.
But Republicans say such doomsday scenarios greatly overstate the impact of the cuts, which are known in Washington jargon as a "sequester."
"I have no problem whatsoever with a 2 percent across-the-board cut," Duncan said. "You can never satisfy government's appetite for money. You can't do it. They always want more money. So they act like this is some humongous cut. It's not."
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Maryville Republican, blasted President Barack Obama for what he called "cynical campaigning instead of presidential leadership."
"This is a very simple problem to solve, and if it's not solved, it's a complete failure of presidential leadership," Alexander said. "After all, this has been the law for a year and a half. It was proposed by the president. It was signed by the president. And he has had 18 months to suggest a way to do it."
If Obama would send Congress a new spending plan for the next six months, "we could have it on the Senate floor and it could be enacted into law before the end of March," Alexander said.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a Chattanooga Republican, said the "hype and rhetoric" that have been coming from the White House for weeks suggest the administration is looking to make a point.
"I hate to say this," Corker said, "but I really believe this: I think as we move through sequestration, I really do believe the administration is going to try to make it as painful as they can on people to point out how bad it is."
Still, allowing the cuts to take effect would be better than no reductions at all, Corker said, especially if it eventually forces a discussion about out-of-control government spending.
"Until we get serious about sitting down and reforming Medicare and Social Security and Medicaid in a way that they are here for seniors down the road, ... all of this is just silliness," he said of the looming cuts.
The real impact of the cuts is probably somewhere between the Democrats' doomsday predictions and the Republicans' claims there will be few harmful effects, said Dave Patterson, executive director of the University of Tennessee's National Defense Business Institute.
Half of the reductions are expected to fall on defense, which could impact companies that contract with the military to provide services. Tennessee receives about $4.2 billion a year in defense spending. In 2011, Knox County businesses alone netted 5,000 contracts, Patterson said.
If the scheduled cuts kick in, "it's going to be very difficult for small businesses that live month to month on small government contracts to be real successful," Patterson said. "Many of them, they will go out of business."