As many as 818 civilians at Ellsworth Air Force Base could be furloughed next month if automatic government spending cuts take effect, U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson warned Tuesday.
The South Dakota Democrat also said that 200 children in the state will lose access to Head Start and local universities will lose research funding if Congress doesn't act by March 1 to avert the cuts.
Johnson's comments followed a morning plea by President Barack Obama who said that if the immediate spending cuts — known as sequestration — occur, the full range of government will feel the effects. Among the impacts he listed: furloughed FBI agents, reductions in spending for communities to pay police, firefighters and teachers, and decreased ability to respond to threats around the world.
The sequestration is the product of a string of budget stalemates between Democrats and Republicans over the past two years. Still dividing the two sides are differences over whether tax increases, which Obama wants and Republicans oppose, should be part of a budget deal.
If an agreement can't be reached, $1.2 trillion will be cut from the federal budget over 10 years, split between domestic programs and military spending.
Col. Mark Weatherington, commander of Ellsworth Air Force Base, said he couldn't rule out whether civilian employees could be furloughed, as suggested by Johnson.
"I really don't want to speculate on that," he said. "To say something is off the table would be foolish, but there's such a wide variety of action that could happen."
Weatherington said it was still unclear how the cuts would impact the base because those decisions were made by his superiors.
At the national level, he said the Department of Defense and the Air Force would likely look at cutting training hours and equipment upgrades.
Weatherington added that Ellsworth had prepared for potential cuts. He said staff travel, contracts and base upkeep had been closely scrutinized over the past two months.
Sen. John Thune, South Dakota's junior U.S. senator, said Republicans have proposed alternatives to cutting defense, but Democrats wanted only another tax hike without real spending cuts.
He said Republicans are willing to see the sequester come into force "if that's the only way we are going to get cuts in spending."
Thune's comments were echoed by U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, a fellow Republican, who blamed a lack of compromise on the president and the Democratic-controlled Senate.
She said Democrats were putting the country's national security at risk.
"For instance, our pilots will have less flying time, which concerns me because we will potentially be sending pilots into battle situations with less training in the past," she said.
But Jon Schaff, a professor of political science at Northern State University in Aberdeen, said both parties carry the blame for sequestration.
Democrats and Republicans agreed to the automatic cuts in 2011 as a means to pressure themselves into finding a long-term compromise to reduce the federal debt. Johnson, Thune, and Noem all voted for that deal.
Schaff said Democrats and Republicans alike are now over-hyping the impact of the March cuts.
"The real cuts are in the realm of $40 billion, and I guess I would argue that in a budget that spends $3.7 trillion dollars or so a year, $40 billion doesn't really amount to much," he said.
He said much of the cuts were actually a "reduction of rate of increase" in the federal budget.
"So if you planned to spend $80 a year and next year you plan to spend $100, and you actually only spend $90—in Washington budget talk, you cut spending," he said.
He added that the defense cuts were particularly over-hyped. The annual military budget had risen from $453 billion to $677 billion in a decade, a rise of 49.5 percent.
Schaff said the nation has a debt addiction that would require a combination of spending cuts and tax increases to end, even if those impacts would be unpleasant in the short term.
"Once you smoke your first pack, smoking becomes hard to quit, quitting becomes harmful," he said. "And we have smoked many, many packs."