WASHINGTON: Apparently realizing that its year-long campaign to stop the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration by focusing on the severe impact on national security has not been effective, the Aerospace Industries Association tried to broaden its appeal Monday by joining with a coalition of non-defense organizations and trying to shift the focus to “entitlements.”

It may be too little, too late. There are few signs from Congress that sequester will not happen. Some Democrats would be happy to see defense spending cut to protect the entitlements. Some Republicans have abandoned the party’s traditional support for defense and are embracing sequester as the only sure way to cut federal spending.

A veteran aerospace public affairs official conceded that the prospects were grim because of the GOP retreat from its support for defense and because no lawmakers “had the guts” to take on entitlements.

Add the fact that the thin audience at the National Press Club event had more officials and aides than journalists — that on a slow news day — certainly seems to indicate that the fat lady is about to sing in the anti-sequester opera.

More than half of the seats in the meeting room were empty and fewer than a dozen recognizable reporters were among the 40 or so people in the room, which previously has been filled for AIA’s anti-sequester briefings. Only three TV cameras were set up behind the rows of mostly empty seats, one-third the number at the previous events.

With less than three weeks before the deep funding cuts are due to bite big chunks out of funding for the military, AIA held another in its prolonged series of news conferences warning of the dire effects of the mindless, across-the-board cuts and appealed to Congress and the administration to prevent it.

This time, the association and its big corporate members included officials from higher education and health care organization, which they said represented “more than 3,500 organizations from all sectors of the economy and society.”

Joining AIA president Marion Blakey — the most vocal leader of the anti-sequester crusade and a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors — and Northrop Grumman CEO Wes Bush, were the presidents of associations representing public and land-grant universities and the larger research-oriented universities and the co-chair of something called Non-Defense Discretionary United.

Peter McPherson of the land-grant schools association and Hunter Rawlings of the American Universities Association added warnings that deep cuts in federal funding for basic research — which supports 60 percent of such work — would erode the nation’s economic and technological leadership and stifle economic growth.

Emily Holubowich, executive director of the Coalition for Health Funding and NDD United co-chair, warned of the loss of health care providers and teachers.

The universal message from them all: discretionary spending — of which defense is nearly half — is not the cause of the annual budget deficits and the growing national debt, but it would take all of the $1 trillion in cuts over 10 years from sequester. To solve the debt problem, the government must address entitlements, the said. They also all agreed that tax increases and some cuts in defense had to be part of the “balanced package” to reduce the annual deficits.

Although they all acknowledged that a short-term measure might be needed to avoid the March madness, the officials urged the politicians not to do what they have done once already – kick the can down the road.

Holubowich may have had the best line of the day, noting that if kicking the can were an Olympic sport, “we would win the gold medal.”

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