Panetta to Congress: Don’t balance budget with added cuts to defense

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned senators Tuesday that they can’t expect to fix the nation’s financial problems on the back of the Pentagon.

Panetta, a former budget chief and House member, said Congress should focus on new taxes and entitlement reform to lower the budget deficit, and said additional defense cuts will endanger the nation’s security.

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“You can’t meet the challenge that you’re facing in this country by continuing to go back at discretionary spending,” Panetta told senators at Tuesday’s Senate Budget Committee hearing.

“That’s less than a third of federal spending,” he said. “If you’re not dealing with the two-thirds that is entitlement spending, if you’re not dealing with revenues, and you keep going back to the same place, frankly you’re not going to make it, and you’re going to hurt this country’s security,” Panetta said.

While Panetta has offered similar warnings in the past, his lecture on Tuesday was delivered in unusually blunt language to Congress. And while Panetta’s appearance in the Senate Budget Committee was rare for a Defense secretary, it was not an unfamiliar setting for the former budget chief who served under President Clinton.

Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey have said repeatedly that the military cannot withstand an additional $500 billion in cuts to defense spending on top of the $487 billion that is currently being reduced over the next decade. The additional cuts are set to take effect in January 2013 through sequestration, which was triggered by the supercommittee’s failure to reach a deal to cut annual deficits.

Panetta has called the sequestration cuts taking a “meat-ax” to the military budget, and said Tuesday it was “designed as a gun to the head.”

Dempsey said “we would not any longer be a global power” if sequestration takes effect.

Both Democrats and Republicans say they don’t want sequestration to occur, but like the supercommittee, the two sides remain deadlocked on how get the $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction to undo the sequester.

Democrats say that Republicans refuse to budge on increasing taxes, while Republicans accuse Democrats of being unwilling to tackle entitlements.

“It is a game,” Panetta lectured the lawmakers on Tuesday. “Because on one side, people will defend not touching revenues, which need to be part of the deal. On the other side, there are those that will defend not touching entitlements, which have to be part of the deal. If you want a deal with the size deficits that this county’s facing, you better put everything on the table.”

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said Tuesday that he wanted to look at both entitlements and tax increases to balance the budget, but said additional defense cuts would be needed.

“We’re going to have to have additional savings if we’re really going to deal with the debt threat confronting the country,” Conrad said.

Conrad told Panetta “we’ve heard you loud and clear” that sequestration goes too far, but he asked the Defense secretary if there were a smaller number that would be acceptable to cut beyond the $487 billion already planned.

Panetta said that stability was needed in the long-term defense budget. “For now, what we have put in place I think represents an important step that we should stick to,” Panetta said.

Panetta has defended the 2013 defense budget, which reduces base Pentagon spending to $525 billion from $530 billion in 2012. The budget cuts more than 100,000 troops, kills several weapons systems early and calls for two new rounds of base closures.

Panetta and Dempsey have said the cuts do lead to more risk, but that it’s an acceptable level of risk. Sequestration, they say, is not.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, said he did not want to reverse the amount of deficit reduction included in sequestration, but said the cuts had to come from other areas.

“We just can’t balance this budget on the back of the Defense Department,” Sessions said.

Sessions said that sequestration was added to the budget at the last minute with very little debate. He called it “a direct result of unsustained debt, and it does threaten our national security if we don’t break that cycle.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has been a critic of both the 2013 budget and sequestration, gave credit to Panetta and Dempsey on Tuesday for stating the threat of sequestration so clearly.

Then he asked Panetta if he’d go one step further to protest the cuts.

“Would you be willing to consider resigning if you were ordered to implement sequestration?” Graham asked.

“Well, I’m not going to go there, because — ” Panetta responded, before Graham cut him off.

“I wouldn’t want you to,” Graham said. “I think you’ve been one heck of a secretary of Defense.”

This story was originally posted at 1:50 p.m and has been updated.