Battle looms over what 'defense' means for automatic cuts if supercommittee fails

A supercommittee failure would trigger at least $500 billion in cuts to national security spending, but there is no consensus on just where they will be made.

Lawmakers included the automatic cuts in the debt ceiling deal as an incentive to get Congress to agree to shave at least $1.2 trillion from the deficit.

But the language also gave policy makers plenty of leeway.

The cuts do not begin to take effect until January 2013, which gives Congress a full year to adapt them before they are implemented. There are also disagreements over language in the debt deal, which have led to different interpretations over what could be cut. 

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All of this has led to predictions of huge lobbying fights on K Street and the halls of Congress, as well as dire warnings over the consequences of the cuts for both the nation’s security and economy.

“I don’t even want to contemplate what will happen next year,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) said in a telephone interview.

“I’m really trying to head it off now,” King said. “It’s going to be lobbying, political, regional, ideological, philosophical — the whole range of divisions are going to be there.” 

House Armed Services Committee aides interpret the debt-ceiling deal’s mandatory cuts as putting only the Defense Department in the cross hairs. But House Foreign Affairs aides said the provision groups the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and all international affairs spending with the defense budget, meaning they could also face cuts.

One former congressional aide said the flap reflects a longtime debate in Washington about just what falls under the national defense spending umbrella.

Having multiple agencies’ budgets grouped together could lead to fights between advocates for the Pentagon and several other security agencies.

Some defense hawks, like Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) have talked publicly about merely voiding the defense cuts next year, before they would kick in. Graham told The Hill he’s looking at “a substitute for the triggers.”

“We’re looking at different options to get to $1.2 trillion that would not destroy the Defense Department,” Graham said.

HASC Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told The Hill on Friday that members have informally discussed canceling the additional defense cuts. “But nothing serious,” he said before a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.



President Obama warned last week that Congress should not “shirk” its responsibilities by negating the automatic cuts.


While both parties are worried about the cuts, Republicans may be more wary.

The debt deal also requires automatic cuts to domestic discretionary spending, but entitlements Democrats are trying to protect from deeper cuts in the supercommittee process are generally left alone. Cuts to Social Security and Medicaid would not be triggered, and cuts to Medicare would affect insurance companies, and not recipient benefits.

This has appeared to give Democrats leverage in the supercommittee talks.

Pentagon leaders and their congressional allies see the automatic national security cuts as a second major hit. DoD is already implementing a 10-year $350 billion cut from planned spending that came from the August debt deal.

As defense hawks eye alternatives to sequestration, King is warning them to stay away from Department of Homeland Security spending.

King told The Hill that he expects budget cutters will see Homeland Security as a target.

“I’m sure they will” try to cut the department’s budget, King said.

“I think it’s wrong, I think it’s shortsighted and it shows a lack of knowledge of how real threats are,” King said. “An attack against us at home, obviously is as serious, if not more so, than an attack overseas.”

House Armed Services Committee spokesman Claude Chafin said the panel has yet to consider options for the day after a super panel failure.

“We are focused solely on the supercommittee reaching a deal,” Chafin said. “That is the only guarantee for the DoD budget.”

The debt panel must strike a deal by Nov. 23. If it does not, the automatic cuts would kick in in January 2013 — unless Congress moves to void them.

Some observers see that as likely.

“Only twice has a sequester taken place without Congress changing it and once it was so small it was less than two-thousandths of a percent of funding. Even if the supercommitee fails sequester isn’t likely to occur,” said Russell Rumbaugh, a former Senate Budget Committee aide now with the Stimson Center.

“In this case, Congress has almost 14 months to change the law before the  sequester takes place. That’s a lot of time to reconsider [what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has dubbed] ‘doomsday’ cuts.”