Congress expected to deliver on half of Pentagon's priorities during lame-duck

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's will likely get half of what he wants Congress to deliver during the lame-duck session, but a deal to stave off devastating defense cuts under sequestration may not be part of that plan, defense analysts and congressional sources tell The Hill. 

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Last week, Panetta laid out the top five legislative priorities he wants lawmakers to tackle on their return to Washington after the Nov. 6 election.

A bipartisan deal to avoid $500 billion in across-the-board DOD budget cuts under the sequestration legislation topped the wish list, Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon last Thursday. 

The cuts were put into place as part of last year's debt reduction deal and were set into motion when a congressional supercommittee failed to trim $1.2 trillion from the national debt. 

Next on Panetta's hit list was getting the defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2013 signed into law. House lawmakers have approved their version of the bill, while the Senate has yet to call a vote on their draft of the legislation. 

Panetta rounded out the list with a request for congressional approval of cybersecurty legislation and Senate confirmation of the White House's nominees for the heads of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Europe. 

"This is a full agenda" demanding strong bipartisan cooperation on Capitol Hill, Panetta said, particularly in the wake of what promises to be a close election between President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney. 

Right off the bat, DOD racked up a win for Panetta's lame-duck agenda when the Senate Armed Services Committee announced Friday that confirmation hearings for Marine Corps Gens. John Allen and Joseph Dunford would be held on Nov. 15. 

Dunford, who is currently Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, is the administration's pick to replace Allen as the head of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan. 

Allen has been nominated to take the helm of U.S. Forces-Europe and become the next Supreme Allied Commander for NATO. 

But Panetta's demand to get a cybersecurity bill to the White House has fallen on deaf ears among lawmakers. 

Even though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated plans to bring legislation to the floor after the election, congressional sources say it's highly unlikely there will be any serious effort to get a deal done. 

While the forecast for a sequestration deal remains just as bleak, the outcome of that fight hinges upon who wins the presidential election. 

Should Obama win a second term, there remains a possibility for some sort of grand compromise on sequestration —  even if the deal is not struck during the lame-duck session, one senior defense industry source told The Hill. 

“I don’t think they can do it in the lame duck. But the president himself said during the debate that sequester will not happen. He played his hand there," the source said. 

"They’ll come up with some kind of deal during lame duck that buys them time on sequester, and into the next Congress where they’ll spend time doing a bigger deal," the source added. 

“Win or lose, this is his problem to solve, because it happens before Inauguration Day 2013,” one House GOP aide added. “He has said it’s not going to happen — it’s a lovely line to use in a debate, but there’s a whole lot of evidence to the contrary.”

That said, sequestration will be a foregone conclusion under a Romney administration, Todd Harrison, a senior defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, said Friday. 

Republicans will look to punt any sequestration deal until Romney assumes office after the lame duck, so GOP lawmakers can draft an eventual compromise on their own terms, Harrison said.

Conversely, Democrats will push to lock in an alternative sequestration deal before the clock runs out on the Obama White House, he added. 

Aside from that fight, Republican and Democratic leaders face internal fights with factions within their own parties who want sequestration to happen. 

That kind of charged political atmosphere on Capitol Hill "raises the possibility of [political] miscalculation," which will likely end in partisan stalemate and lead to sequestration going into effect in January, according to Harrison. 

Even if sequestration goes into effect next year, Congress will still have time to cut a deal, according to Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute. 

"Passing the [sequestration] deadline probably won't have much practical impact, since the government would still need to generate implementation guidelines" to carry out the cuts, Thompson pointed out. 

That bureaucratic process, which could take months, will give lawmakers a sizable window to reach a compromise, Thompson said. 

"My guess is the law will be amended before the guidelines are ready," he added.  

Prospects are a bit brighter in Congress for approving the Pentagon's fiscal year 2013 defense spending legislation, with the industry source claiming a deal would "definitiely get done." 

House and Senate staffers already are preparing for conference committee meetings on the defense authorization bills, the industry source added. 

“The [defense authorization] process has faced much greater hurdles in years past and cleared them,” the House GOP aide added. 

But with mounting pressure on Congress to get a slew of non-defense legislation wrapped up during the lame duck, it's possible the defense authorization bill could still fall by the wayside.

As the Senate continues to wrangle with issues ranging from tax reform to health care, "when you stack it all up ... I think the [defense authorization] is pretty low on the list," according to Harrison. 

A Democratic congressional aide suggested a reinvigorated Obama White House could also complicate efforts to get an authorization bill padded. 

With a win on Nov. 6, Obama might be more willing to reject restrictions on closing and transferring detainees from Guantanamo that have been placed in the bill in prior years, according to the Democratic aide. 

The White House had threatened to veto last year’s bill over the detainee issue before reaching a last-minute compromise.

That said, Harrison suggested DOD go into the lame-duck session with lowered expectations on the defense autorization bill. 

If House and Senate lawmakers make it to the negotiating table and hold conference committee meetings on the defense authorization bill, "I think [DOD] should [also] take that as a win," Harrison said.