Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Flake said mandatory budget cuts set to begin in January as part of sequestration should be focused on entitlement programs such as Medicare rather than the Department of Defense.

Speaking this past week in Tucson about the impacts automatic spending cuts, or sequestration, would have on the U.S. military and defense industry, Flake said he and other members of the U.S. House have proposed finding savings elsewhere to avoid the cuts. Unless Congress acts, the cuts would total $1.2 trillion over a seven-year period starting in 2013, including about $500 billion in defense cuts. They would begin in January.

"In the House we are saying, 'Let's take the cuts from the real drivers of our debt, which is not defense.' The real drivers of our debt are the entitlement programs, in particular Medicare," Flake said. "With the reforms that we've already called for in the so-called Ryan budget, we've said let's realize those savings over time in entitlement programs rather than defense spending."

Mitt Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has a Medicare overhaul plan that would reduce the fixed insurance payment to retirees, which Republicans say would bring down costs by forcing retirees and doctors to be more cost-conscious about health-care decisions. Ryan's proposal also offers future retirees an option of private coverage that the government would help pay for through a voucherlike system, while keeping the traditional program as an option.

Democrats say Medicare vouchers would increase costs for seniors currently using the program. The Democrat-backed health care reform of 2010 includes more than $700 billion in estimated cost reductions to Medicare over a decade.

Flake, who is finishing his sixth term as a U.S. representative in Congress, said sequestration would disproportionally hit the Department of Defense. The entire government, including Defense, needs a "haircut," but decisions should be strategic and not indiscriminate.

He also pointed out that defense cuts have already begun with the $492 billion reduction to defense spending over 10 years that President Obama and congressional Republicans agreed to in 2011.

Flake's opponent in the U.S. Senate race, Democrat Richard Carmona, said through his spokesman that Flake's desire to slash Medicare benefits is a "misguided" approach to solving the budget problems.

Carmona, the former U.S. surgeon general, considers the sequester an embarrassing failure from "career politicians who refused to work together," said his spokesman, Andy Barr, in an email.

"Dr. Carmona knows we can cut the deficit responsibly, using a scalpel instead of an ax," Barr said. "And unlike Congressman Flake, Dr. Carmona would never use the threat of default as 'leverage' to try to slash seniors' benefits."

Flake was in Tucson on Thursday as part of a two-day, statewide tour. He convened a panel of retired military generals and community leaders to discuss the impacts of pending cuts on Southern Arizona.

The panel painted a bleak picture, saying the cuts would be disastrous to military bases and defense contractors and subcontractors such as Sargent Controls and Aerospace, which hosted the event at its warehouse.

Republicans have blamed President Obama and Democrats for the automatic, across-the-board 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 in August 2011. Flake voted against that legislation.

Earlier this summer, the Senate's Democratic leader, Harry Reid, D-Nev., sent a letter to GOP members of the House Armed Services Committee saying he wants to find a solution to avoid sequestration cuts, but that it will happen only if the GOP relents on closing tax loopholes to raise revenues.

Flake said that's not a viable solution. "We don't need to raise tax rates even if we need new revenue," Flake said. "The last thing we need to do is raise tax rates."

A committee that worked on this topic suggested other ways to boost revenue by getting rid of tax reductions, credits and expenditures, he said, but Reid is intent on raising tax rates to make a political statement.

With Congress only scheduled to be in session for three weeks before the Nov. 6 election and then set for a lame-duck session after that, finding a solution to prevent sequestration is politically complicated, Flake said.

"Neither party is sure what the landscape will be in November, or January, so they are not wanting to play their hand now," Flake said.

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or On Twitter @BradyMcCombs.