Hagel: Pentagon, Congress must be 'partners' in sequestration fight

The Defense Department and Capitol Hill must get on the same page quickly if the Pentagon is to survive the next round of massive, across-the-board budget cuts under sequestration. 

"We [need] Congress as a willing partner in making tough choices . . . while meeting our responsibilities to our people," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday. 

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That partnership means lawmakers will have to weigh in on several hot-button defense spending issues, from "meaningful reform" to military pensions and benefits to acquiescing on Capitol Hill's long-standing opposition to military base closures and cancellations of prized weapon systems, according to Hagel.  

Under sequestration, the Pentagon is staring down $500 billion in mandatory spending cuts. The cuts began in March and would reduce Pentagon spending by $52 billion next year.

"We do not have the option of ignoring reality, or assuming something will change," Hagel said during a keynote speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

Hagel's comments represent a new tact by the Pentagon to persuade lawmakers to work with the department to cope with the effects of sequestration, rather than force Congress to come up with a viable alternative to the budget cuts. 

The highly-partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill has put any hope for a sequestration alternative out of Congress' reach, Hagel told reporters in October. 

After months of harsh warnings and dire predictions on the on the devastating effects of sequestration by the White House and Pentagon, Congress is still no closer to a deal, Pentagon Comptroller Bob Hale said during the same press briefing. 

"We understand that there will be [budget] negotiations ... but I do not think there is any one thing we can do" to convince lawmakers on the harm sequester will do to U.S. national security that has not already been done. 

But that has not stopped lawmakers from repeatedly sounding the alarm on the need for a sequestration fix. 

The top commanders for the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, to make the military's case against sequester. 

But inside the Pentagon, department officials are already drafting their fiscal year 2015 budget plan, the department's first spending blueprint with sequestration cuts factored in. 

That plan will coincide with the department's Quadrennial Defense Review, which this year will provide the overarching strategy for the U.S. military after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Hagel ran down the details of that strategy with the service chiefs and top U.S. regional combat commanders last week, according to a senior defense official. 

That plan will drive large-scale changes in how the U.S. military trains for and fights future wars, as well as how the Pentagon does business within its own bureaucracy and other government agencies. 

“Our success ultimately depends not on any one instrument of power," Hagel said. 

"It depends not only on how well we maintain and fund all of our instruments of power – but how well they are balanced and integrated with each other," Hagel said Tuesday. 

But the DOD chief noted all these plans, for the foreseeable future, will be colored through the lens of sequestration. 

If Congress cannot "provide the [Pentagon] with time and flexibility to implement spending reductions more strategically" under sequestration, "the risk [is] that the President would have fewer options to fulfill our national security objectives," Hagel said.