Pentagon tries sequester guilt trip

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Pentagon leaders are drafting a plan to cut education, healthcare and housing benefits in an effort to get Congress to end the sequester.

The fiscal 2015 budget is the first spending plan offered by the Pentagon that takes sequestration cuts into account.

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By proposing spending cuts to the sensitive benefits programs, the Pentagon is gambling it can convince lawmakers to change the sequester.

Under sequestration, the Pentagon is staring down $500 billion in mandatory spending cuts. The cuts began in March and would reduce Pentagon spending by $52 billion next year.

The strategy under review by the Pentagon offers a multi-year plan to ramp down benefit levels, rather than single-year fixes to military compensation programs, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said during a national security symposium in California.

“We have a body of knowledge that has convinced us doing it once is the right answer,” Dempsey said.

The Wall Street Journal first reported details of the plan on Monday.

Pentagon leaders plan to brief Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Congress on the benefits proposal once it is complete, Defense Department spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters.

Hagel set the stage for the Pentagon’s gambit earlier this month, saying Congress must partner with the department to cope with sequestration.

“We [need] Congress as a willing partner in making tough choices ... while meeting our responsibilities to our people,” Hagel said during a keynote speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But lawmakers are already pushing back against the benefits cuts — a hot-button issue on Capitol Hill.

“It’s outrageous for the Department of Defense to cut pay and benefits for our troops when what they need to do is to trim their bloated bureaucracy,” Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) said in a statement.

“So long as the Pentagon insists on doing business as usual, they will be forced into solutions that penalize our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, who can least afford this,” he added.

Sen. Chuck Grassley characterized the Pentagon plan as another Obama administration scare tactic, similar to White House warnings over national park and monument closures in the run-up to the government shutdown earlier this year.

That said, the Iowa Republican indicated congressional lawmakers were ready to call the Pentagon’s bluff on benefit cuts, once the final plan hits Capitol Hill.

“It’s always hard to go after [military] benefits,” Senate Armed Services Committee chief Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told The Hill on Wednesday, noting he had yet to read details of the plan.

“I happen to think sequestration is a terrible mistake and we ought to replace it. That is my focus,” he added.

House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) echoed Levin’s comments. He added that the Pentagon proposal was yet another symptom of sequestration’s devastating effect on U.S. national security.

“Sequestration will continue to have a negative impact on all facets of the department’s budget” and U.S. defense priorities, until Congress can find a way to end the cuts, Smith spokesman Mike Amato told The Hill.

House defense panel chief Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said he would oppose any action to strip benefits until the congressionally mandated Compensation Review Commission has wrapped up its review of the military benefits program.

“We will not move on any [Pentagon] action until we hear from them,” McKeon said in a brief interview on Wednesday.

Established before the automatic spending cuts under sequestration went into effect, the commission is “looking at the whole [Pentagon] structure — pay, benefits [and] the whole thing,” according to McKeon.

“We have a commission and when they come back, then we will address their recommendations” alongside the Pentagon’s proposal, the California Republican added.

Despite months of harsh warnings and dire predictions on sequestration’s devastating effects by both the White House and Pentagon, Congress is still no closer to an alternative.

That impasse has left the Pentagon will little option but to force lawmakers’ hands on benefits and compensation, according to Dempsey.

“What we have asked these young men and women to do over the last 10 years — we can’t pay them enough,” Dempsey said during the national security symposium.

“Having said that, we also have an institution to manage,” he said, according to the Journal.