WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans will try to spare defense programs by reconfiguring the $1.2 trillion in spending cuts that are to be triggered starting in 2013 by the collapse of a congressional deficit-cutting committee, a leading Republican senator said on Sunday.
"I think there's a broad consensus that too much of the cuts are weighted on our defense's capabilities and would really, really cut in deeply into our ability to defend this nation," said Senator Pat Toomey, a member of the "super committee" that failed last week to reach a deal to reduce the huge U.S. debt.
"And so, I think it's important that we change the configuration," Toomey said on ABC's "This Week."
Also on the Sunday news programs, Senator Charles Schumer said Democrats will be willing to look at other ways to cover costs of extending a payroll tax cut if their plan to pay for it with a surtax on millionaires fails on the Senate floor this week.
President Barack Obama threatened last week to veto any efforts to undo the $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts over 10 years. The cuts are divided between domestic and military programs and are to be triggered following the failure of the super committee to strike a deficit-reduction deal.
The 12-member committee floundered with Republicans saying Democrats were unwilling to overhaul government health programs that could swamp the economy, and Democrats blaming Republicans for refusing to allow tax increases on the very wealthy to help bridge the deficit gap.
Toomey said the Democratic president was "suggesting that he would veto any attempt to eliminate portions" of the cuts. "I don't recall him having a categorical veto threat on any change in the configuration," he said.
But Schumer, appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," said the threatened cuts must be borne equally by defense and domestic programs to give Republicans and Democrats an incentive to keep striving to reach a broader deficit-reduction plan before the severe cuts take effect in 2013.
Tinkering with the cuts "would be a huge mistake," Schumer said. "If you take one of those knives away" of pending cuts to Republican-favored defense programs or Democratic-favored domestic programs, there is no incentive to negotiate, he said.
Schumer also said Democrats would be open to other ideas to offset costs of extending a payroll tax cut if their bill on the Senate floor this week does not pass. It is to be paid for with a surtax on incomes over $1 million, expected to be a non-starter with Republicans opposed to tax increases.
Toomey, asked about extending payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits, said, "Some package of that with other features might very well pass."
But Senator Jon Kyl, the Senate's No. 2 Republican, did not say he would agree to extend the payroll tax and unemployment benefits.
"The payroll tax holiday has not stimulated job creation. We don't think that is a good way to do it. Before the end of the year, we will have discussions about what we're going to do on all these different programs," Kyl said on "Fox News Sunday."
Schumer and Toomey also said that despite the super committee's collapse, they have not given up hope lawmakers could strike a broad deficit reduction deal next year.
The stage could be set for such a deal, Schumer said, with the scheduled expiration of the George W. Bush tax cuts in 2013, the "knives" of looming massive cuts to defense and domestic spending triggered by the super committee's collapse, and the end of the Republican presidential nomination process which should prompt the nominee to try to gain support from moderates.
"I believe ... that we have a good chance of actually getting the big package, big deficit reduction, in 2012," Schumer said.
Toomey also said he was "cautiously optimistic" for a big deficit reduction compromise if Republicans could strike a deal with moderate Democrats who thought the spending cut plan Republicans offered was "very constructive, was reasonable."