By Jeremy Herb
Pentagon leaders explained in great detail Tuesday the ways that sequestration would hollow out the military and cause “lasting and irreversible” damage to national security.
But the Senate Armed Services hearing did not get lawmakers any closer to an agreement on how to replace the automatic spending cuts, even though most agree the sequester would be bad policy.
One by one, military leaders laid out the dangers of the automatic cuts: reductions of 100,000 soldiers, the loss of planes and ships, cuts in essential training and an inability to carry out the new U.S. military strategy.
“What you have this year, in the next few months, is a true crisis in military readiness,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter said.
“The cloud of uncertainty hanging over our nation’s defense affairs is already having lasting and irreversible effects.”
Sequestration is set to go in effect on March 1, and would cut $46 billion from the Pentagon’s 2013 budget. Cuts of roughly equal size would also hit non-defense domestic spending.
The sequester cut would wipe away approximately 9.4 percent of the Pentagon’s $600 billion-plus budget, with areas like military personnel exempted.
While military leaders stayed mostly quiet when sequestration was set to hit in January, the Pentagon has taken a different — and more vocal — tack after the “fiscal cliff” deal pushed the deadline back to March 1.
The department is planning cost-cutting moves including a hiring freeze and the cancellation of Navy carrier deployments if sequestration occurs. The Pentagon has warned that sequestration will result in up to 22 furlough days for the nearly 800,000 members of its civilian workforce through the end of the fiscal year, at the end of September.
The problems of sequestration are compounded by the continuing resolution (CR) that’s in effect through March 27. Pentagon leaders warn that extending the stopgap spending bill for a full-year — which keeps funding levels the same from the prior year — would cause nearly as many problems as sequestration itself.
“We need budget certainty — that is, we need the antithesis of sequestration: a steady, predictable funding stream,” said Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Tuesday’s Senate hearing was designed in part as an effort by defense-minded lawmakers to convince their colleagues that sequestration is a danger to national security. The Joint Chiefs will also be testifying before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
“Some members of Congress and commentators in the press have said that we should let sequestration go into effect, that it would be better to severely cut the budget than to work out a deficit-reduction agreement that would require compromise. I could not disagree more,” said Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.).
President Obama is expected to use his State of the Union address Tuesday night to make the case against letting the across-the-board cuts take effect, and will argue that some of the money to replace the cuts must come from higher taxes.
But GOP lawmakers have rejected including new revenues in a deal to avert sequestration, and some House Republicans say that they will only accept sequestration or alternate spending cuts of the same size.
Republican defense hawks have proposed their own bill to do away with the first year of sequestration, through cuts in the federal workforce. The bill, sponsored by Senate Armed Services ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), however, has not gained any traction.
McCain said Tuesday that he felt the whole episode was an “Orwellian” experience.
“This is really a disconnect, the likes of which I have never seen before,” McCain said. “The signal we are sending frankly to the Iranians is, ‘Don’t worry, the aircraft carrier is not coming.’ ”
Graham noted that Dempsey and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have been warning about the dangers of sequestration since it first became law in 2011.
“Have you run out of adjectives to tell us how bad this is?” Graham asked Dempsey. “Senator, I have a degree in English from Duke University, and the answer is yes,” the Joint Chiefs chairman responded.
Many of the senators sought to elicit details about the dangers of the cuts from the military leaders, but there was also sniping about old fiscal battles, including the passage of the Budget Control Act (BCA) that set sequestration in motion.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) noted that the top Republicans on the Armed Services Committee voted for the BCA, a shot at Republican leaders who have tried to blame sequestration on the president. McCaskill also said to “sign me up” for painful cuts to fix sequestration, but added that revenue had to be part of the compromise.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said both sides had to put aside “sacred cows.”
“We've got to look at spending. We've got to look at revenues. And we've got to look at our mandatory programs,” Shaheen said.
Inhofe pushed the bill from the GOP defense hawks, saying that it wasn’t a “perfect solution, but it is better than doing nothing.”
He also took aim at Obama for not doing more to reach out to Congress.
“There is a growing concern that the president will not seriously negotiate with Congress on a compromise to sequestration until after it takes place on March 1,” Inhofe said.
Carter also said that all options should be on the table for a deal, but said he was losing hope something would be done before March 1.
“I felt that we have been voices crying in the wilderness now for 16 months,” he said.
—This story was updated at 1:14 p.m.