When U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham visited the Lowcountry in May to warn drastic defense-budget cuts would threaten the nation's defenses and Beaufort County's three military bases, few local leaders thought the issue would still be of concern come Election Day.
However, Congress' decision to adjourn early and return for a lame-duck session after the Nov. 6 election has local leaders thinking budget sequestration -- and not a proposed reconvening of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission -- poses the most immediate threat to the three installations.
"I don't think anybody (saw this coming)," said retired Col. John Payne, chairman of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce's Military Enhancement Committee. "Before sequestration, the Defense Department had already agreed to another round of BRAC and $500 billion in cuts. This is really like taking a sledgehammer to a problem that required a flyswatter."
More than $600 billion in defense cuts were stipulated in the Budget Control Act if a select committee that convened last year failed to reach consensus on a way to reduce the national debt. The bipartisan panel indeed failed to reach a resolution.
The Pentagon already planned to cut more than $450 billion over the next decade, officials said.
Though Graham warned that the broader cuts could force the closure of any or all three of area's three bases, local officials say they hope a deal can be struck to avoid sequestration by January 2013.
"I do not believe panic is setting in," retired Col. Jack Snider, the committee's vice chairman, said. "We are disappointed Congress failed to find a solution before leaving for the election, but we are not surprised. I believe a short-term solution to push sequestration off a few months is more likely than a long-term solution before January 2nd."
Officials from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and Naval Hospital Beaufort said this week that local commanders have not said anything publicly about the budget fight or its affect on the people who work there.
"The Office of Management and Budget and the DoD are working closely to understand the law and assess its impacts," said Lt. Col. Benjamin Clatterbuck, the air station's executive officer. "Regardless of budget restraints, we will continually educate and train our Marines to succeed in distributed operations and increasingly complex environments."
Even if Congress avoids sequestration, local officials must still guard the bases from future BRAC closures, which appear imminent in coming years, Snider said.
"We believe additional defense cuts are likely and the BRAC process will again be implemented to achieve spending reductions," he said. "It is important during this period that we remind people how critically important our Beaufort bases are to national defense."
The committee has received $125,000 from Beaufort County, with another $125,000 pledged and $20,000 from the town of Hilton Head Island to help pay for a Washington, D.C., lobbying group to protect the local bases from closure.
The committee has made similar appeals to Bluffton, Port Royal and Beaufort.