FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. - At a defense roundtable in the town that's home to Fort Bragg, Paul Ryan spoke out against the looming $500 billion defense cuts, saying the president needed to explain how automatic, across-the-board cuts to the defense budget would affect military jobs and defense contracts. But when a question arose about the former special operations and intelligence members who are attracting headlines by actively criticizing the president for alleged security leaks and what they see as politicizing the killing of Osama Bin Laden, Ryan was silent, deferring to his spokesperson.
"Put up or shut up," Ryan said, addressing the budget cuts. "The president needs to show us how he plans on putting this in place if he is not going to help us pass legislation preventing it in the first place."
Ryan, the House Budget chairman, originally voted for legislation that included the cuts, known as sequestration, and praised them at the time. But today his spokesperson Michael Steel said what Ryan voted for was "bipartisan deficit reduction."
"The president instead went AWOL on the campaign trail and the result is the devastating defense cuts that the president insisted on," Steel said after the roundtable.
Ryan said in a Romney-Ryan administration they would make sure the cuts "will not happen."
"We believe in the doctrine of peace through strength," Ryan said. "Strength means having strong national defense, and that is why we are steadfastly opposed to the president's reckless and devastating defense cuts."
The vice presidential candidate has simplified the reasons behind the cuts on the campaign trail, which are part of a political battle that began brewing last summer. They are mandated by the Budget Control Act, which was signed into law last August by President Obama in exchange for a $2.4 trillion increase in the debt limit.
House Speaker John Boehner insisted that any increase in the debt limit be matched dollar-for-dollar in spending cuts and reforms, but as the federal government ran critically low on cash, Congress had only agreed to about $1.2 trillion in savings. Still, the debt limit was increased under an agreement that called on a "supercommittee" to negotiate an additional $1.2 trillion in savings, or face sequestration - meaning the automatic cuts that include those defense cuts and items unpalatable to each party.
After the supercommittee failed to strike a deal, the country was left with sequestration. The Obama administration, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, has warned what the cuts would mean for the military.
North Carolina has a $23 billion defense industry, and the roundtable was held at the Partnership for Defense Innovation, a tax-exempt nonprofit that promotes economic development. There were military families onhand, including a gold star mother as well as Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.). Christina Kazakavage, the mother whose son Adam Gannett was killed after 13 years of service in the Air Force, gave a passionate defense of why she's against the cuts. Despite the loss of her son, she said, it was important to look out for the other sons and daughters who are serving.
Ryan tried to personalize what the cuts would mean for members in the audience. "Only in America do you have young people like this who are inspired by the ideals of our country and who have this pathway. And in this case, a pathway out of poverty and into a life of self-discipline, of self-sufficiency, of pride. It's amazing what this does for our culture. Not to mention our strength as a country."
During the question-and-answer session, there was an awkward moment when a woman stood up and addressed the issue of the Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund, which has released a 20-minute video, "Dishonorable Disclosures," criticizing the president for alleged security leaks. The group also has a Facebook page. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey have called those comments "not useful."
Initially at the roundtable there was some confusion about the question and Ellmers answered. "I think I understand where Gen. Dempsey was coming from. However, I think that this is a very important issue and certainly a first amendment right and they have every right to speak out if they feel they need to."
Ryan remained silent during the back-and-forth; Steel did not, but simply agreed with Ellmers and said he hadn't discussed the issue with the Wisconsin congressman. "I haven't heard him address the question."
The Obama administration almost immediately responded to the event, saying Ryan wasn't "serious about avoiding the automatic defense cuts" and if he were, "he'd tell Mitt Romney and his fellow Republicans in Congress to work with the President to achieve balanced deficit reduction that includes asking millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share - as the plan President Obama has put forward does."
"But he's not. In fact, Congressman Ryan voted for the agreement he criticized today, and he walked away from a balanced deficit reduction plan last summer because he thought it would help the President's re-election prospects. And Mitt Romney himself has said that he didn't want Congress to act, despite looming defense cuts. Congressman Ryan and Mitt Romney should show some leadership to avoid these cuts instead of using our military budget to score a political point," Obama spokesperson Danny Kanner said in a statement.