In one of several campaign stops in the Lowcountry this weekend, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham told a small Beaufort crowd the area's military installations are threatened by the specter of federal budget cuts.
Planned defense spending cuts could mean much more than reducing the Marine Corps' troop size from 190,000 to 182,000, the S.C. Republican told members of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce's Military Enhancement Committee on Friday. If Congress cannot rein in spending over the next decade, it could mean either Marine Recruit Depot Parris Island or its counterpart in San Diego will close, Graham said.
"One of the saddest days in the history of the Marine Corps is when they would have to close one of those training centers," he said. "The military budget under sequestration is headed for a train wreck, and Congress, in all their folly ... is gutting the Marine Corps at a time we need it most.
"I will not let that happen without a hell of a fight."
Proposed budget cuts in 2015 also have threatened the F-35 Lightning II program, he said. A variant of the fighter jet is scheduled to arrive at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in June, along with three active-duty F-35B squadrons and two pilot-training squadrons. The jets, which have enhanced stealth capabilities, will eventually replace the F-18 Hornets currently flown at the base.
Graham, who serves on the Senate's Armed Services Committee, says scaling back spending on a modernized military is dangerous to the country and to Beaufort.
"Over time, our advantage erodes," he said. "We're broke, but we're never too broke to defend ourselves."
Jim Wegmann of the Military Enhancement Committee said there is no immediate threat to the air station or Parris Island.
"Anytime we hear about things that might impact the local bases, we always have a concern," Wegmann said. "But I think (Graham) was looking at a bigger picture, a longer-term picture."
The senator also touched on health care, entitlement spending, flood insurance reform and national security. While Graham said he supports a plan to provide the Ukrainian government with a $1 billion package of loan guarantees, the Obama administration must also sanction Russia.
"Let's hit (Russian president Vladimir) Putin and his cronies in their wallet," he said.
Graham, who faces six challengers in the June GOP primary, will need to win 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. Four of his opponents -- Lee Bright, Richard Cash, Bill Connor and Dave Feliciano -- vowed Thursday to support each other if one ends up in a runoff with Graham.
The other two GOP challengers, Nancy Mace and Det Bowers, did not sign the agreement.
From Friday morning's news conference, Graham headed to another Beaufort campaign event, followed by appearances Saturday at Sun City Hilton Head and on Hilton Head Island.
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.