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  • Staff photo by BOB HAMMERSTROM

    Senators Kelly Ayotte and John McCain speak to veterans and BAE Systems employees during a forum Tuesday, July 31, 2012, at BAE in Merrimack.
  • Staff photo by BOB HAMMERSTROM

    With veterans seated behind them as a backdrop, Senators Kelly Ayotte and John McCain speak to BAE Systems employees during an event Tuesday, July 31, 2012, at BAE in Merrimack.
Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Ayotte: ‘The security of our nation is a bipartisan issue’

MERRIMACK – U.S. Sens. Kelly Ayotte and John McCain returned to New Hampshire on Tuesday to talk about the budget cuts hanging over the U.S. military. But it was one senator who didn’t make the trip who offered the best solution.

The two Republican senators stopped at BAE Systems in Merrimack to address the $500 billion in cuts hanging over the Pentagon. But unlike earlier stops on this week’s “Preserve America’s Strength tour,” U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., didn’t join them, returning instead to Washington, D.C.

“Sen. Graham is sorry he couldn’t be here with us today,” Ayotte, New Hampshire’s junior senator, told the crowd of more than 250 veterans and BAE employees who gathered for the event.

“But … if he were here right now, he would say, fire the politicians, keep the soldiers,” she said, drawing a round of cheers from the crowd. “That’s what he would say.”

In Graham’s absence, Ayotte and McCain spoke for more than an hour about the $500 billion in cuts threatening the Pentagon.

Last summer, as part of the federal debt-ceiling negotiations, Congress proposed more than $1 trillion in automatic cuts that would go into effect if lawmakers didn’t agree to a deal to reduce the national deficit.

On Tuesday, a deal was announced that would avoid a shutdown and provide funding through next year.

“The (deficit) supercommittee did not act, and now we are facing these draconian cuts, which are unacceptable, and yet we still have not moved,” McCain, the veteran Republican senator from Arizona, told the crowd.

“We all believe we have to cut spending,” added Ayotte, who sits with McCain on the Senate Armed Services committee. “But to create a national security crisis, on top of our fiscal crisis, is the wrong thing for America.”

The budget cuts would take a heavy toll on the military, should they take effect, the senators said. The Army could lose 100,000 soldiers, and the Marine Corps could lose as many as 18,000.

“The assistant commandant of the Marine Corps has said that the Marine Corps would be unable to respond to one single major contingency on behalf of our country,” Ayotte said. “Can you imagine? In the United States of America.”

Some of the effects would hit close to home, analysts said.

According to a report by George Mason University in Virginia, New Hampshire could lose more than 3,600 jobs, as well as $312 million from the state economy if the cuts went into effect. At BAE, the national defense manufacturer that hosted the event, more than 4,000 workers could lose their jobs across the country, said Tom Arseneault, the company’s chief technology officer.

“The indiscriminate nature of sequestration could have a devastating impact on our armed forces, our national security along with the defense industry,” he told the crowd.

The event, held at BAE’s aircrew protection center, was closed to the public, and reporters were prohibited from speaking with the employees on hand. Some members of the public made themselves heard nonetheless.

About two dozen residents and activists picketed outside the company’s campus on Daniel Webster Highway, opposing the emphasis on military spending.

Members of New Hampshire Peace Action, a state advocacy group, protested the nation’s emphasis on military spending.

“The United States spends as much on our military as the next 26 nations combined,” Will Hopkins, the group director, said after the event. “The idea that significant cuts to defense spending are going to harm our security is ludicrous.”

Other activists decried the event’s focus on the military reductions over significant social service cuts also included in the sequestration plans.

A recent report, released by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, indicated that the cuts could be even more severe on nondefense programs, including childcare and health services, according to MaryLou Beaver, director of the New Hampshire branch of Every Child Matters, a national advocacy organization.

“We’ve heard so much about the Pentagon cuts side of sequestration, but very, very little, especially from our own senator, about these vital services,” Beaver said after the event. “It’s time to put ideology away and for both sides of the aisle to actually sit down and come up with … solutions that are better and fairer for everybody.”

Some critics questioned the senators’ decision to come to New Hampshire, considered a swing state in the upcoming presidential election.

“It seems disingenuous for (them) to come to a swing state during election season to talk about this. … We’re in this situation because we failed to achieve real deficit reduction last year,” Doug Wilson, the former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, said Monday, on the eve of the event.

Ayotte and McCain emphasized the nonpartisan nature of the debate.

The two are working with other lawmakers from both parties to identify $109 billion in spending cuts to offset the first year of the cuts. And they’re hopeful that, with the leadership of President Barack Obama, they will come to a longer-term solution.

“National security is our first priority. But without a strong economy, we can’t have a strong national security,” McCain said.

“The security of our nation is a bipartisan issue,” Ayotte added. “Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle need to come to the table now to resolve this. … It shouldn’t be a political football or a bargaining chip for other issues in a lame duck session.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or Also follow Berry on Twitter (@ Telegraph_JakeB).