GOP leader calls for replacing defense cuts one year at a time, if necessary

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Monday suggested replacing the $600 billion in automatic defense cuts set to begin in 2013, even if Congress must do so one year at a time.

The defense cuts are looming as half of the $1.2 trillion sequestration that will kick in because of the failure late last year of the congressional deficit “supercommittee” to agree to a deficit-cutting plan.

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While deficit reduction has faded in recent months as a top priority on Capitol Hill, Cantor and defense hawks in both parties have begun discussions about trying to replace the Pentagon cuts with spending reductions elsewhere in the budget.

The effort could reprise the deficit-slashing battles of 2011 as the November election nears.

Cantor told reporters Monday that he wanted to try to find at least enough in offsets to restore the $60 billion in defense cuts set to take effect next year. He acknowledged that finding cuts to replace the entire $600 billion, spread out over 10 years, would be difficult, given the failure of deficit talks through 2011.

“So if 10 years is a problem, then let’s go back and maybe we can find one year’s worth of pay-for that can at least stave off the sequester from being implemented Jan. 1, 2013, so that maybe we can have this election take place and be able to avoid it,” the majority leader said in a briefing with reporters at the Capitol. “I just think the defense of this country is a priority — it is the priority.”

The other half of the sequestered cuts are slated for domestic spending programs, including funds for Medicare providers.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), has already introduced legislation to undo the defense cuts, and has suggested that raising taxes would be preferable to allowing the sequester to go forward.  McKeon later walked back those comments, stressing the need for cuts to entitlement programs.

President Obama’s Defense secretary, Leon Panetta, has warned that the across-the-board Pentagon cuts could damage the military, coming on top of $450 billion in reductions that the Defense Department is already planning to implement. Yet the president has threatened to reject any effort to undo the automatic cuts that is not part of a deficit-reduction deal that includes additional tax revenue.

Cantor said his concerns were underscored during a recent weeklong trip to the Middle East, where he spoke to military officials and U.S. allies.

“There is no question that there is some concern about the existing proposals coming out of the administration, in addition to what the sequester will cause,” he said.

He emphasized that he did not support undoing the sequester entirely, but wanted the defense cuts replaced with others.

Cantor also took a dig at GOP presidential contender Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), who has called for the United States to reduce its presence overseas and said America should not be “the world’s policeman.”

The majority leader said he spoke to someone who said of Paul’s position: “Well, I would rather be the one responding to the 911 call than the one making it.”

Cantor, who has not endorsed a presidential candidate, added: “I think that’s probably a fair assessment of where the American people are on that, too.”

Cantor has spoken out against the automatic defense cuts since shortly after the supercommittee failed, but his push for replacing them piecemeal, if necessary, is consistent with his skepticism that major legislative compromise is possible before the November election.

“I’m hopeful that we can actually do something this year along those lines. I am also mindful of where we’ve been the last year,” he said in a reference to the repeated attempts on a deficit “grand bargain” that collapsed in the face of the wide ideological chasm over taxes and entitlement programs.

— Posted at 4:39 p.m. and updated at 8:25 p.m.