Sens. want Hagel to detail sequester cuts

The heads of the Senate Armed Services Committee are asking Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to spell out how the Pentagon would cut $52 billion from its 2014 budget under sequestration.

In a letter sent to Hagel on Thursday, Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) told Hagel that a detailed explanation of how the cuts would hit the Pentagon may be the only way sequestration can still be stopped.

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They asked Hagel to submit to Congress a package of $52 billion in reductions by July 1.

“We recognize that it will not be easy to put together such a package,” the senators wrote. “In our view, however, a concrete demonstration of the painful choices the Department would have to make to cut $52 billion from its budget may be our last, best hope of avoiding sequestration altogether.”

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The Pentagon requested a base budget of $526 billion in 2014, which is $52 billion above the spending caps under sequestration. The House and Senate budgets passed in March set defense spending at roughly the same levels, too.

All of the budgets made an effort to avoid sequestration, but none of the solutions are politically feasible.

Unlike 2013, the Pentagon has flexibility under sequestration to decide where it cuts the budget so long as it stays under the budget caps. If the budget is over the caps, however, an across-the-board cut would be implemented.

The Pentagon’s 2014 budget request was panned by defense analysts as unserious when it was released last month because there’s little will in Congress to reverse the sequester.

Defense industry officials have been frustrated over the quick fix that Congress passed last week to reverse FAA furloughs after they began to cause flight delays.

The Pentagon has long been warning of the danger of sequestration to national security and the industrial base, but there have only been a handful of concrete examples of the cuts, such as civilian furloughs, the delay in carrier deployments and canceling events such as air shows.

Defense analysts warn that the effects of the sequester are coming to the defense industry and military, but they will take time to have a major impact.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) criticized the Pentagon for setting the budget at pre-sequester levels, sarcastically telling Hagel at a congressional hearing last month, “I appreciate the fact that you put together a budget that ignores the realities of the law today.”

When the budget was released, Levin defended the Pentagon’s decision to set spending at pre-sequester levels, saying that the administration and most lawmakers all want defense spending at that level. 

Now he hopes that detailing the defense cuts can generate some political momentum to get the cuts reversed.

Levin and Inhofe noted in the letter that most Pentagon witnesses have told the committee that sequester-sized cuts in 2014 would be irresponsible and devastating, but that has done little to sway public opinion or their fellow lawmakers.

“Despite this testimony, many members of Congress and the public still seem to have the view that sequestration is an effective way to cut government spending and can be made workable simply by providing the Department with additional flexibility or making minor adjustments,” the senators wrote. “As a result, there is an increasing risk that DOD and other federal agencies may face sequestration again in 2014.”

The Armed Services Committee heads did not say in their letter whether they would set the Pentagon’s budget topline in the 2014 Defense authorization bill at pre-sequester or post-sequester levels.