Kyl threatens to quit supercommittee over further defense cuts

A senior Republican senator said Thursday he would have declined a seat on the congressional supercommittee if further Pentagon budget cuts were on the table.

The disclosure by Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) came as several Republicans said they would seek to block legislative triggers that could force massive defense cuts over the next decade.

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Kyl revealed Thursday that he told congressional leaders to find someone else to fill the supercommittee seat he had been offered if the panel intended to further trim the Pentagon budget beyond the $350 billion over 10 years that was included in the August debt deal.

He told a standing-room-only lunch audience that he immediately told GOP leaders, “I’m off the committee” if further military cuts would be on the table.

"We're not going there," Kyl said sternly, recalling his message to his fellow GOP leaders. "Defense has given enough already."

The comments cleared up whether the Pentagon and defense industry have a strong ally on the high-level panel.

If the supercommittee fails to cut $1.2 trillion by Thanksgiving, automatic triggers would be enacted to reach that figure, including around $600 billion in additional defense cuts over 10 years.

Asked by The Hill whether he would support any defense cuts in a possible final supercommittee package smaller than the $600 billion threatened under that trigger, Kyl replied, "No."

Kyl announced he will not only quit the panel if further defense cuts become part of its deliberations, but added that he will push that it "waive" the defense-specific triggers that were in the August debt law.

The senator pointed out that if the Pentagon is forced to trim $950 billion from its base budget between 2013 and 2023, “that would kill defense.”

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates led an effort late last year that found $178 billion in savings within the Pentagon budget. The military services were allowed to keep the dollars they found from within their individual budgets.

At the same lunch, which was sponsored by three conservative think tanks, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he plans to seek a legislative way to waive the $600 billion in national security cuts that would be required if the superpanel fails.

At the lunch event and during an earlier House Armed Services Committee hearing, it became apparent that pro-defense Republicans — who also staunchly oppose any tax hikes to swell federal coffers — want the entire $1.2 trillion amount to come from domestic entitlement programs.

During the GOP supercommittee members’ closed-door meetings, “there is a feeling that the discretionary side has already given its part” of needed federal cuts under the August debt deal, Kyl said.

The Republicans will press the 12-member bipartisan panel to focus solely on reforming politically volatile entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.

“In a $3.5 trillion [entitlement] budget, there is enough slop in the system” to find $1.2 trillion in savings “without touching benefits or how those programs work,” Kyl said.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) also zeroed in on entitlement program cuts.

“It is time we focus our fiscal restraint on the driver of the debt, instead of the protector of our prosperity,” McKeon said.

McKeon and other Republicans on Thursday slammed the Obama administration for cutting budgets first and setting the nation’s security later.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) panned the administration for allowing “politics to drive” decisions on everything from force levels in Afghanistan to Pentagon budget cuts.

In the emerging debate among pro-defense lawmakers about how the special panel should proceed, senior Democrats have joined Republicans in opposing “indiscriminate cuts” that are made without first building a strategy.

But on Thursday, they broke with the months-old Republican line that any Pentagon cuts beyond the debt deal’s $350 billion through 2023 would force changes so dire that the U.S. military would be rendered inferior to future adversaries.

“I share the view that large, immediate cuts to the defense budget would have substantially negative impacts to the ability of the U.S. military to carry out those missions we assign them, and this is in fact why I voted against the recent agreement to raise the debt ceiling,” said House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.).

“I believe that we can rationally evaluate our national security strategy, our defense expenditures and the current set of missions we ask the military to undertake and come up with a strategy that requires less funding,” Smith said. “We can, I believe, spend smarter and not just more.”

Smith shot back at GOP hawks who complain about budget cuts driving national security strategy decisions.

“We on this committee like to say that strategy should not be driven by arbitrary budget numbers,” Smith said, “but by the same token not considering the level of available resources when developing a strategy is irresponsible and leads inevitably to asking our military to undertake jobs for which we do not have the resources for them.”

— This story was updated at 4:31 p.m.