House Armed Services leaders announce effort to stave off Defense cuts

House Armed Services leaders on Wednesday delivered their opening argument against Pentagon budget paring beyond $350 billion, saying they will publicly examine how those cuts will affect soldiers on the battlefield.

“We have to talk about the consequences” of Defense Department budget reductions over 10 years mandated in the August debt deal, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) told reporters Wednesday.

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Panel Vice Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said he and McKeon “aren’t saying we should just throw money at Defense.”

Thornberry said lawmakers and officials should try to find additional savings within the Pentagon budget, such as the more than $150 billion in “efficiencies” that were uncovered during a late 2010 internal budget drill.

“But we shouldn’t cut indiscriminately and expect [that will have] no impact on soldiers on the front lines,” Thornberry told reporters during the same roundtable session.

The HASC duo wants the Obama administration to draw up a sweeping national security strategy before deciding how to implement the $350 billion in cuts, or before a congressional supercommittee orders even more cuts in a potential deficit-shrinking deal.

Thornberry said he is not opposed to the U.S. military shedding certain missions. But he wants such decisions to be made “with our eyes open.”

Asked what his message was to the supercommittee, McKeon quipped: “Leave us alone,” citing modest Pentagon budget cuts over the past few years and the $350 billion through 2023 mandated in the debt deal.

While there are no House or Senate Armed Services Committee members, who typically are pro-military, on the supercommittee, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), are considered friends of Congress’s so-called “Defense Caucus.”

Murray is one of the deficit-reduction panel’s co-chairmen.

A HASC aide said Wednesday that panel staff are in “constant communication” with Kyl and his staff.

As part of its anti-cuts argument, the House panel rolled out a four-minute video titled “Provide for the Common Defense” on Wednesday.

It features McKeon talking about the 9/11 attacks, the wars it spawned and several questions he plans to ask in public hearings with Pentagon officials: “What if we’re attacked in some other area”; What is our military going to be able to do if we keep cutting it? … Tell me the missions we’ve done in the last couple of years that we won’t be asked to do in the next couple of years.”

McKeon and Thornberry noted that the Constitution states that national defense is one mandate of the federal government, but costly domestic entitlement programs are not mentioned in the document.

McKeon told reporters that new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta shares the HASC leaders’ concerns.

In private conversations, Panetta has told McKeon that “he doesn’t want to be the secretary who hollows out the military.”