Sweeping cuts to the Defense Department budget over the next decade, and not another round of base closures, present the gravest threat to the future of Beaufort County's three military bases, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said Tuesday during a stop in Beaufort.
More than a dozen local leaders were on hand as the South Carolina Republican painted a grim picture of the military's future as a result of budget sequestration in January 2013 that will trigger more than $1 trillion in mandatory cuts from the Pentagon's budget.
Such cuts could all but dismantle the Marine Corps, shutter the local installations and wreak havoc on the county's economy, he said.
"I'm trying to paint a broad and vivid picture of what awaits this nation," Graham said. "I wanted to start in late May and early June to implore Congress to do something before this gets out of hand. I want to inform communities in the cross hairs of what could be coming, and (Beaufort County) is in the cross hairs."
More than $600 billion in defense cuts were included in the Budget Control Act as a penalty if the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction failed last year to reach consensus on a way to reduce the national debt. The bipartisan panel failed to reach such a resolution.
The Pentagon already planned to cut more than $450 billion over the next decade, officials said.
Graham was critical of leaders in both parties for "holding the Defense Department hostage."
"(Congress) has been known to do some dumb things, but this is one of the dumbest things we've ever done," Graham said. "Why would you gut the Defense Department to pay the price for a bunch of politicians not being able to get their acts together? Fire us, keep the soldiers. At least they're doing something productive."
Graham urged local leaders to pressure House and Senate leaders to resolve the debt debate before January 2013 to avoid the $600 billion in additional cuts.
Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said Graham's warning Tuesday was "frightening."
"With (base closures), it's a scalpel. And budget sequestration is a meat cleaver," Keyserling said. "Some bureaucrat at the Defense Department is going to be told cut 'X' dollars ... and it's going to be about the numbers. It'll be arbitrary, and you always wonder about arbitrary decisions."
Retired Marine Col. John Snider, a member of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce's Military Enhancement Committee, said he is also worried about the cuts but believes area leaders should still prepare for a reconvening of the Pentagon's Base Realignment and Closure Commission, or BRAC.
"I have confidence that they will figure this budget thing out, but I do believe there is a BRAC on the horizon," Snider said. "Hopefully, the BRAC process will take place, and we will have the ability to rally the community and tell our story. We have a very good military story here in Beaufort, and we have to tell that story in the Pentagon and on (Capitol) Hill."