WASHINGTON - Tens of thousands of civilian employees in the Defense Department could receive warnings about potential layoffs four days before the November election if impending spending cuts aren't averted, hitting presidential battleground states such as Virginia and Florida hard.
The alerts would come in addition to any that major defense contractors might send out at the same time to their workers under an often-overlooked law, a prospect that is unnerving the White House roughly three months before voters go to the polls.
Frederick Vollrath, a senior Pentagon official, outlined the timeline for notification of possibly 10 percent of the 800,000-strong civilian workforce in testimony Thursday before a House panel. He cautioned, however, that no decision has been made on job cuts as Washington grapples with the looming, $1.2 trillion automatic reductions in defense and domestic programs.
"I don't think anybody has been able to come to grips yet with the severity of what sequestration means," Vollrath told the House Armed Services subcommittee on readiness.
Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., the panel's chairman, reminded Vollrath that the cuts were part of the law that Republicans and Democrats voted for last August and President Barack Obama signed.
"Sequestration is not just some pipe dream out there. It is the law. It's on the books. It's scheduled to take place in January," Forbes said.
He pressed Vollrath on whether the Pentagon has done any work to implement the reductions.
"I am not aware of any planning, but that does not mean that there is no planning," Vollrath said.
A few hours after that testimony, Pentagon press secretary George Little said in a statement that Vollrath did not indicate that the Pentagon is planning for sequestration.
"While it is likely that sequestration would force us at some point to make reductions in the civilian workforce, we have not made any decisions regarding the timing or size of those reductions," Little said. "The Secretary (Leon Panetta) has been crystal clear that his focus is on preventing sequester, not planning for it."
The across-the-board cuts kick in on Jan. 2, and under the law, defense employees must be notified 60 days in advance -- Nov. 2. Congress must be informed of any layoffs 45 days prior to that, or mid-September.
Civilian defense employees are heavily concentrated in Virginia, a state crucial to Obama's hopes for re-election. Their numbers also are significant at military bases in Florida and North Carolina, two other battleground states, and installations scattered around the country.
These states also are home to major defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin Corp. and their construction facilities. Last week, Robert J. Stevens, chairman and chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin, told Congress that the across-the-board reductions could result in layoffs of 10,000 employees from his company of 120,000 workers.
He also signaled that notices could go out 60 days in advance to the company's employees.
The notification is required under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, which went into effect in February 1989. The law designed to protect workers and communities requires employers to provide notice 60 days in advance of a plant closing or mass layoffs.
The law applies to companies with 100 employees or more.
While the possibility of layoff notices causes consternation at the White House, it also worries lawmakers whose districts are home to Defense Department employees and military contract workers.
"I'm urging defense contractors in my district to contact their elected officials and urge a balanced approach to solve the problem of the sequester," said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., in an interview.
But Connolly also blamed the Republicans who he said wanted more than a simple vote to raise the nation's borrowing authority.
"And now it's like the orphan who murders his parents and throws himself on the mercy of the court because he's an orphan. I mean what," he said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that any deal to stave off the cuts would require tax increases on high-wage earners, which Republicans oppose.
"You know we have a situation where defense cuts that the president believes are much too deep, that Republicans and Democrats believe are much too deep as well as non-defense cuts. Republicans would allow those to go into place rather than asking millionaires and billionaires to pay a little bit more," Carney said.
Three Senate Republicans plan a trip next week to four presidential battleground states -- Virginia, New Hampshire, Florida and North Carolina -- to warn about the impact of the cuts.
Republicans have blamed Obama for the reductions in projected defense spending, but Republicans as well as Democrats voted for the cuts as part of a $1.2 trillion deficit-cutting plan.
The law implements nearly $500 billion in cuts over 10 years as the nation emerges from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
If Congress can't find a way to avert the automatic cuts, known as sequestration, defense and domestic programs would face another round of cuts of about $500 billion apiece.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the reductions would be disastrous though he hasn't spelled out how the Pentagon would make the cuts to weapons, troops and ships.
Jeffrey Zients, acting head of the Office of Management and Budget, and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter will be questioned by the House Armed Services Committee next week on how the administration plans to make the one-year, $55 billion in defense cuts beginning in January.