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WASHINGTON - It's more than a year away, but federal spending cuts forced by the special deficit-reduction panel's failure to reach a deal has folks across South Carolina concerned.
They're worried at Savannah River Site, which could see a $110 million reduction in toxic waste cleanup funds - a cut that would likely mean fewer jobs at the sprawling former nuclear weapons complex in Aiken County.
They're worried at Force Protection Inc. in Ladson, which makes armored vehicles for the Army, at FN Manufacturing in Columbia, which supplies military guns, and at dozens of other defense contractors that employ thousands of people across the state.
They're worried at public schools, three-quarters of which get threatened funds for low-income districts, one of the nation's highest rates for Title 1 education money.
While welfare, Medicaid and other safety-net programs are exempt from the cuts, community leaders fear for low-income South Carolinians who depend on federal aid to help pay their rent or summer air conditioning bills.
"We're just going to get slammed," said Sue Berkowitz, head of Appleseed Legal Justice Center in Columbia. "South Carolina is such a poor state. So many programs that help low-income people would definitely be in trouble."
Fort Jackson, Shaw Air Force Base and other military hubs could see pay freezes or even layoffs for some of their 11,000-plus civilian employees.
With the next-generation F-35 fighter plane under fire in Congress for production delays and excessive costs, the Pentagon's most expensive weapons system is a prime target for absorbing a chunk of the more than $500 billion in mandated defense cuts.
That could effect current upgrading and expansion of the Beaufort Marine Corps Air Station to accommodate three of the Joint Strike Fighter squadrons.
In a letter last month to Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the Pentagon might have to terminate the entire F-35 program, foregoing plans to buy 2,443 of the aircraft for the Army, Navy and Marines, because of the forced cuts.
With the spending reductions required to be split equally between defense and non-defense programs, South Carolina could lose close to $1 billion in 2013, the first year of forced cuts.
The state's reduced federal funds would taper off over each subsequent year through 2021 under the regime of forced cuts, which in the peculiar language of Washington budget-talk is called "sequestration."
Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is especially worried about the pending defense cuts, even though active duty military personnel are exempt.
"I realize our current budget situation demands that everything, including defense, be on the table for some level of spending reductions," Graham said. "But if the Pentagon is forced to live with an additional $600 billion in cuts under sequestration, we will hollow out the most effective military in the history of the world," he said.
Graham and McCain have vowed to try to block the defense cuts, though they won't say how.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
When Congress passed the Budget Control Act in August, it put in place a compromise after weeks of bitter debate.
President Barack Obama and Democratic congressional allies received authorization to raise the federal debt ceiling.
In exchange, GOP lawmakers extracted creation of a bipartisan "super committee" tasked with finding a way to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over nine years.
The rub was that most Republicans want to reach that target through spending cuts alone, while Democrats prefer a mix of cuts and "increased revenues" - code for tax hikes.
To pressure the six Republicans and six Democrats on the panel to reach a deal, Congress established the forced cuts - or sequestration - that would slash broadly across the government if they failed to agree on a plan.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, an Indian Land Republican in his first year in Congress, wrote a "Cut, Cap and Balance" bill that the GOP-controlled House passed in July, only to see it die in the Democratic-led Senate.
Mulvaney believes there's a decent chance that Congress will override the sequestration and come up with a better way of achieving the August law's minimal $1.2 million in deficit reduction before the forced cuts are scheduled to start Jan. 1, 2013.
"Generally there is dissatisfaction with the sequestration," Mulvaney said. "Generally people don't like the fact that the military bore 50 percent of the reductions. Give us 13 months, and I think we'll be able to find those cost savings in a way that has bipartisan support."