With $85 billion in automatic spending cuts approaching a Friday congressional deadline, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., on Monday cited Blair County as a region where slashed spending could cut deepest.
The so-called sequester - a series of mandatory federal spending reductions set to start Friday - would mean hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts and tens of thousands of job losses in Pennsylvania, according to White House statistics released Sunday.
While President Barack Obama and some in Congress have promised talks to avoid the sequester, hits to public schools, health research and military installations appear increasingly likely.
"They're indiscriminate. They cut everything the same way," Casey said in a conference call Monday.
While some Republicans have criticized the government's predictions, White House numbers paint a dim picture for the state: more than 600 teachers, aides and special education staff laid off; 26,000 civilian military employees furloughed; and services slashed for children, domestic violence victims and the unemployed.
Ripple effects could hit locally as national defense contractors, some operating facilities in Cambria County, deal with a downsized military budget. A 2012 George Mason University study that Casey cited predicts 78,000 job losses statewide - more than half caused by defense cuts.
Government contracts already have slowed as departments brace themselves for the sequester, said Linda Thomson, president and CEO of Johnstown Area Regional Industries.
"We're really not sure yet what's going to happen. We've all been on pins and needles as to whether there will be some action taken by Congress," Thomson said.
Months of uncertainty have led corporations reliant on government contracts to spend money conservatively, she said, despite rumors that Congress could iron out a deal soon after the across-the-board cuts begin.
For the counties surrounding Altoona, several of which already tally higher-than-average unemployment, the added blow of military and school layoffs could be devastating, Casey said.
"We're still in the middle of a recovery," he said, boasting of national job-creation numbers but noting Blair County's unemployment rate is above 7 percent.
"That's thousands of people [already] out of work," he said.
Community Development Block Grants, which provide funding for infrastructure improvements and municipal construction projects, would take a more than an $8 million hit in Pennsylvania, Washington studies have shown.
Casey said the nation's governors have spoken out against the sequester, which Obama has said can be avoided through combined government budget cuts and tax increases for the wealthy. Republicans have fiercely fought the proposed tax increases, arguing for spending cuts instead.
"There's plenty of time to work on an agreement," Casey said, dismissing some naysayers as "24-hour partisan warriors."
In an emailed statement, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., supported the spending cuts in spirit but disputed their across-the-board application.
"I do not like the way the sequester is designed because it hits defense disproportionately," Toomey said. "Nevertheless, across government most programs can afford to be cut some."
The statewide defense cuts - the lion's share of the sequester's effect in Pennsylvania - would save $157 million at the expense of 26,000 jobs and millions of dollars in base operations funding, according to the White House estimate.
Toomey said he'd rather give the president and individual government agencies the reins in picking specific cuts.
"I want to give the president this flexibility," he said in the statement. "The other side so far has pushed back."