U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, left, listens as Defense Secretary Ash Carter testifies on the Defense Department's proposed fiscal year 2017 budget before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C., March 17, 2016

Washington — Pledging to go on a “political jihad” if Congress fails to undo the statutory spending caps that are hampering the nation’s military from meeting current and future threats, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) urged attendees at the Defense Communities 2016 National Summit to make it their highest priority as well.

“If you want to do something, don’t advocate for your base. Come up here and advocate for Congress not to decimate the military as a whole,” Graham said Tuesday during the Defense Community Awards Luncheon.

“Over the last seven or eight years, we’ve cut $1 trillion out of the military. We’re on track to have the smallest Army since 1940, the smallest Navy since 1915 and the smallest Air Force in modern times. Normally we spend about 4.5 percent of GDP to defend this nation. We’re on track to spend 2.3 percent,” he said.

Beyond limiting the armed forces’ capacity, the stringent budget caps are harming military readiness.

“In the Marine Corps today, 70 percent of the F-18s are not ready to fly. The Army is stretched unlike any time I’ve ever seen. The Navy is robbing Peter to pay Paul to keep the ships on the ocean. If we pivot to the South China Sea, what are we going to use, a row boat?” Graham said.

The senator then warned the audience, “There’s no way we can keep every base represented in this room open with sequestration.”

Graham delivered his remarks as one of this year’s winners of ADC’s Congressional Leadership Award, an honor he shared with the luncheon’s other keynote speaker, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Graham has been a staunch proponent of a well-equipped and prepared military during his 22 years on Capitol Hill, but he stressed that legislative efforts alone will not halt the drastic spending cuts and the resulting downsizing of force levels.

“Promise me that next year you are going to come up armed with facts and you’re going to look your representatives and senators in the eye and say, ‘Will you stop sequestration?’

“I want to get out of debt as much as anyone in the room,” he said. “But I don’t think the military cuts are moving the needle. They’re stopping this country from its ability to defend itself.”

Durbin, ranking member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, stressed the importance of bipartisanship to strengthen military bases and communities during his remarks. He has worked closely with Republicans, including Sens. Thad Cochran (Miss.) and the late Ted Stevens (Alaska). “We disagreed on many things but our work on the Appropriations Committee was totally nonpartisan.”

Durbin also stressed the importance of “finding innovative ways of to make installations relevant and important to the taxpayer.”

He cited as an example learning that Naval Station Great Lakes in North Chicago was planning to close its aging hospital even as the North Chicago Veterans Affairs medical center considered converting from an inpatient facility to an outpatient clinic, despite the local veteran population’s ongoing need for inpatient services.

“I asked, ‘Why wouldn’t you merge the VA center and the hospital?’” Durbin recalled. “Their answer was, ‘Because it’s never been done before.’”

Today, the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center is the first federal health care center in which the VA and DOD partner to provide inpatient and outpatient care.

“That was a big lift, to get them to work together because the VA and DOD have such different cultures,” Durbin said. “But we did it.”

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