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Congress and the Pentagon are facing an important deadline. In just under two months, the second wave of congressionally mandated sequestration - budget cuts - will kicked in, and Pentagon spending is scheduled to be slashed by $20 billion. Military contractors say that it would be catastrophic, and they're lobbying hard to make those cuts fall somewhere else, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: One sign of the industry's concern: For more than two years, the Aerospace Industries Association - the organization that encompasses nearly all of the big defense contractors - has been pushing a messaging campaign they call Second to None.
Here's one ad the AIA is using to recruit new members.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Today, our industry faces unrivaled challenges: budget cuts and loss of funding, cancellation of iconic programs.
OVERBY: The AIA's Vice President for National Security and Acquisition Policy is Christian Marrone.
CHRISTIAN MARRONE: If we come at it and look at the real cost drivers in our budget, both now and in the future, that's what really needs to be addressed at the end of the day.
OVERBY: When the AIA talks about the real cost drivers, it's pointing to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Industry lobbyists also say military contracts create jobs all over America. It's a tried-and-true argument, but Marrone says it's not so effective this time.
MARRONE: What we've found is, as we've talked about the jobs message and the impact on the economy, it hasn't resonated as great as one would think.
OVERBY: One of the big lobby firms in this field is American Defense International. CEO Michael Herson agrees the industry needs to step up its lobbying game, and it's not even a complicated message
MICHAEL HERSON: Why we need a strong defense, why we need to get rid of the sequester, and what the impact this is having. And, you know, the world is still a dangerous place, and we need to have the ability to be able to fight and react anywhere, any time.
OVERBY: But Herson says defense contractors can't match the grassroots organizing and sophisticated lobbying of senior citizen and health care groups.
HERSON: That's something that's really foreign to the defense industry, because they've never had to do it before.
OVERBY: That argument doesn't cut much ice with Gordon Adams. He's an American University professor of International Relations and a former budget official in the Clinton White House.
GORDON ADAMS: These people know all about grassroots lobbying. They know about campaign contributions. They know about every tool in the lobbyist's toolkit.
OVERBY: And if defense lobbyists have an uphill fight right now...
ADAMS: It wasn't because they don't know how to deliver a message. It's because nobody was listening.
OVERBY: And the reason for that: Voters appear to be demanding action on the budget and debt, not so much on foreign threats.
ADAMS: We're in a budgetary mess. We're in an economic mess. We're not in a national security mess.
OVERBY: Adams' prediction: When the budget ax stops swinging, the Pentagon will get about as much money as it did in 2004, when the United States was fighting two wars.
There's another kind of lobbying, too, by small contractors and subcontractors. James Albertine lobbies for some of those.
JAMES ALBERTINE: I've been here 40 years, and so I remember a time when money was not a problem.
OVERBY: He says the jobs argument used to get results.
ALBERTINE: You had constituents in their state or in their district, and you convinced members of Congress about a program and how beneficial it would be for them. And, basically, the money appeared.
OVERBY: But those days are gone. And even if Congress saves the Pentagon from the $20 billion sequestration cut, it's hard to see when those days of easy money will come back.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.