GOP chairman to offer bill to prevent automatic defense spending cuts

A senior House Republican vowed Monday to roll out legislation to “prevent” Pentagon spending cuts mandated by a supercommittee failure, and two prominent senators soon announced their intention to join that fight.

Rep. Buck McKeon, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the cuts would do “catastrophic damage to our men and women in uniform” and national security if they are implemented. 

“Secretary Panetta has said he doesn't want to be the secretary who hollows out defense,” McKeon said in a reference to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. “Likewise, I will not be the Armed Services chairman who presides over crippling our military. I will not let these sequestration cuts stand.

Speaking later from the White House briefing room, President Obama threatened to veto any legislation that would void any automatic cuts that would kick in if lawmakers fail to cut a debt-reduction deal by next December.

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The summer deal on the federal debt ceiling that created the supercommittee mandated $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts, including as much as $600 billion in national security cuts, if the special panel was unable to reach an agreement on at least $1.2 trillion in cuts.

The automatic cuts, known as sequestration, were included to provide an incentive for the supercommittee members to reach a compromise.

Differences between Republicans and Democrats on the panel over tax hikes and entitlements have prevented the supercommittee from reaching a deal. Its co-chairmen formally announced the panel's failure on Monday.

“The men and women on that committee had a tough job with no easy choices before them," McKeon said. "Now, unfortunately, America's military is facing cuts that will devastate the armed forces and force us to break faith with service members. I do not accept that outcome.”

“Our military has already contributed nearly half a trillion to deficit reduction,” McKeon continued. “Those who have given us so much have nothing more to give.”

McKeon’s statement contained no specifics on just what his legislation will mandate, nor how much of the automatic national defense cuts it might seek to void.

An Armed Services Committee source told The Hill on Monday that “we are looking at a number of options.”

“Now that support for our military men and women is on the line,” the source said, “he is focused on a legislative solution that can clear both chambers.”

Other congressional defense hawks like Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member, also have talked about legislation that would cancel out the $600 billion in national defense cuts over a decade.

"As every military and civilian defense official has stated, these cuts represent a threat to the national security interests of the United States, and cannot be allowed to occur," McCain and Graham said in a joint statement.

“We are now working on a plan to minimize the impact of the sequester on the Department of Defense and to ensure that any cuts do not leave us with a hollow military," the senators said. "The first responsibility of any government is to provide for the common defense; we will pursue all options to make certain that we continue to fulfill that solemn commitment.”

Notably, however, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) signalled he would not join the effort to void the Pentagon cuts. Levin called for a broader debt-reduction deal — including new federal revenues, which has been a sticking point for many Republicans.

“The idea of sequestration was to increase the pressure on all sides to compromise," Levin said. "We must now deal with the sequester as a whole, by doing what the Joint Select Committee has been unable to do: Create a balanced deficit reduction package that includes revenue as well as spending reductions and avoids unacceptable cuts to education, health care, defense and other vital programs."

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Panetta and congressional defense hawks say the automatic cuts — which would come on top of $350 billion over that period already being implemented — would be devastating for the military. Liberal lawmakers and left-leaning analysts argue that the Pentagon’s annual budget nearly doubled since Sept. 11, 2001, and can easily be trimmed by $1 trillion over a decade.

The sequester cuts would, short of quick congressional action to void them, be reflected in the 2012 budget plan the department would send to lawmakers in February.

Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon comptroller, told The Hill earlier Monday that it is almost certain that Panetta will at the very least ask Congress to grant him greater say over what gets cut.

“Absent congressional approval, current law does not provide flexibility,” Panetta wrote in a Nov. 14 letter to McCain and Graham. “It dictates that sequester cuts must be applied in equal percentages to each program, project and activity.”

That same letter detailed the kinds of high-profile items Pentagon officials would consider cutting or terminating if the supercommittee fails, including big personnel cuts, major program changes or terminations and other items.

“We would have to formulate a new security strategy that accepted substantial risk of not meeting our defense needs,” Panetta wrote in the Nov. 14 letter. “A sequestration budget is not one that I could recommend.”

There is no consensus, however, on just what the Budget Control Act means when it calls for national defense cuts.

Congressional aides and sources told The Hill on Friday it includes mostly Pentagon spending, but also Department of Homeland Security, international affairs and other things.

House Armed Services Committee aides said Friday it would only hit the Pentagon budget; on Monday the panel said in a separate statement that the act’s $600 billion in cuts would come from a pot of federal funds that is “95 percent” Pentagon monies.

This article was updated at 5:06 p.m.