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Workers anxious as cuts set to take effect

11:23 AM, Mar 1, 2013   |    comments
In this May 13, 2005, file photo, shipyard workers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine protest against plans to close the base by the Defense Department in front of the main gate. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File)
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KITTERY, Maine (AP) -- They don't care which side caused Washington's latest crisis.

Five hundred miles from Capitol Hill, the men and women of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard are worrying about paying rent, searching for new jobs and caring for sick loved ones.

Almost the entire workforce, a community of more than 5,000 along the Maine and New Hampshire seacoast, is preparing to lose the equivalent of a month's pay because of Congress' inability to resolve another budget stalemate.

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Orsom "Butch" Huntley, 63, a shipyard employee for three decades, is already living paycheck to paycheck while caring for his terminally ill wife.

"Congress doesn't look at the individual. They just look at the bottom line. And it just really makes it tough to think we're just a number to them," Huntley, a computer engineer, said this week in a restaurant outside the shipyard gate. "It's going to be totally devastating."

The fear is consuming military communities as the nation braces for budget cuts designed to be so painful they would compel Congress to find better ways to cut the federal deficit. President Barack Obama and governors from across the nation have intensified calls for compromise in recent days to meet Friday's deadline.

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Defense officials warn of diminished military readiness as the cuts begin to bite. Economists warn of damage to a delicate economic recovery. And federal officials warn of travel delays, slashed preschool access and closed national parks.

But in small towns whose economies are deeply tied to the military, there is a human impact that breeds anger and fear.

Across the table from Huntley, facilities engineer Kevin Do explains that he and his wife - also a shipyard employee - have already delayed plans to buy their first home because of uncertainty created by Washington. With a 4-year-old son in daycare, he's now looking for part-time construction work to help pay the bills, even if it means working seven days a week.

"We basically put the American dream on hold," Do said.

Preparing for a worst-case scenario, Navy officials have plans to force mandatory furloughs on roughly 186,000 civilian employees across the country. People like Huntley and Do would lose 22 paid days between April and October, or roughly 20 percent of their pay. Shipyards from coast to coast have outlined cost-cutting plans to delay huge maintenance contracts on nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers.

Polling suggests that some Americans are still unaware of the looming cuts, known in Washington speak as a "sequester," but the debate is well known to federal employees and the huge network of businesses, contractors and communities that serve Navy shipyards and military bases. Virtually every nearby restaurant, grocery store or car dealer is aware of the looming cuts.

Some states are facing more pain than others. Oklahoma has five military installations. Chris Spiwak, owner of Chequers Restaurant and Pub outside Tinker Air Force Base in Midwest City, said he's afraid he might have to lay off an employee or two.

"We have customers telling us that if they're furloughed, they won't be coming in as much," Spiwak said. "That's their expendable income. They'll be eating at home or bringing their lunches."

And there is widespread uncertainty in Virginia, where many of the 21,000 workers at Newport News Shipbuilding are bracing for the worst. Obama addressed shipyard workers this week about the dangers of the spending cuts.

"Everybody's nervous, worried about what's going to happen," Ronnie Hall, a 27-year-old fleet support apprentice, said before the president spoke.

The president, who has pushed for a compromise deficit package of spending cuts and new tax revenue, seems to have the upper hand among the public over the standoff. A Pew/USA Today poll this week found 49 percent of Americans would blame Republicans in Congress if Obama and Congress couldn't strike a deal. Thirty-one percent would blame Obama, 11 percent would blame both of them and 8 percent were unsure.

On federal spending in general, an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Wednesday found significantly more Americans in favor of Obama's handling of federal spending than Republicans in Congress, although neither side earned high marks. Half of the country disapproved of Obama's handling of the issue, while two-thirds disapproved of congressional Republicans.

The political stakes meant little to the workers gathered outside the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard this week during their lunch break.

"Both sides put us here," said Huntley, who had already lost his house because of his wife's medical bills. "At my age I should be in my golden years. But those things are gone. As the guys around me say, the golden years have taken the gold and just left me the years."

Next up for Congress and the White House is how to avoid Washington's coming crisis, which threatens a government shutdown after March 27, when a six-month spending bill enacted last year expires.

In Kittery, Do offered elected leaders a reminder: "They forget it's faces and families," he said. "There's a cloud over a lot of people."

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Associated Press writers Brock Vergakis in Virginia and Sean Murphy in Oklahoma and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius in Washington contributed to this report.

Steve Peoples, AP

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