Inhofe, Panetta trade shots over gridlock on sequestration cuts

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) exchanged some sharp, rhetorical barbs on Thursday over the congressional deadlock on how to avoid billions in looming budget cuts under the White House's sequestration plan. 

In a letter sent to Panetta on Thursday, the newly minted ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee pressed the Department of Defense to work with rather than blame Congress for the ongoing stalemate on sequestration.

"Rather than simply blaming Congress ... it is my hope that you and the [White House] will work with Congress to ensure that an agreement can be reached to spare our military from further devastating cuts," according to the letter. 

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Inhofe, who replaced Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as the Senate Defense panel's top Republican, has stated sequestration and its impact to U.S. national security strategy will be his top priority heading into the 113th Congress. 

As a result, the Oklahoma Republican asked Panetta to provide a detailed report on the potential fiscal impacts to the department should sequestration happen, according to the letter.

The report, which will include specific numbers of possible civilian furloughs and "hiring freezes" related to sequestration cuts, as well as information on "essential reprogramming actions" on key DOD weapons programs affected by the reductions, will lead "to a better understanding of the military risk posed by [sequestration] cuts," Inhofe wrote.

During a press conference with U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza in Italy on Thursday, Panetta fired back at Inhofe's criticisms and reiterated his frustration with congressional lawmakers over sequestration. 

"This is not an unsolvable problem. We can do this. People have just got to suck it up and take some of the risks and take on some of the challenges that are required by people in leadership," he told the crowd of Army soldiers during the event. 

"You guys go out and you put your lives on the line. You take the worst risks of all [and] ... it's a hell of a risk," the DOD chief added. "All we're asking of our elected leaders is to take a small part of the risk that maybe, you know, they'll piss off some constituents."

Congress and the White House have until March to come up with a plan to duck the nearly $500 billion in looming cuts under sequestration. 

The reductions were initially set to hit the Pentagon in January, but lawmakers agreed to a two-month delay to the cuts, as part of a eleventh-hour deal on New Year's Eve to prevent the country from going over the so-called "fiscal cliff." 

That said, Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey have ordered service leaders and combat commanders to begin taking "precautionary" cost-cutting measures in anticipation of sequestration, the two defense leaders announced last week. 

The measures include unpaid furloughs to the department's civilian workforce and near-term reductions to critical DOD accounts that fund operations, training and maintenance of weapons and equipment.

The sequestration planning from Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter also calls for cuts to major acquisition programs and various research and development efforts that are under way at DOD.