Panetta challenges lawmakers over opposition to Pentagon cuts

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey will run a three-day gantlet in Congress starting Tuesday morning as they face Republican critics of President Obama’s new military strategy.

Panetta and Dempsey will testify on the president’s defense budget in back-to-back-to-back hearings, beginning with the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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Obama’s budget request, released Monday, cuts absolute defense spending for the first time in a decade and slashes more than 100,000 troops. Those reductions are in line with the president’s strategy revamp, which drops a requirement that the military stand ready to fight two large-scale ground wars at once.

Panetta defended Obama's proposed cuts in opening remarks on Tuesday and reminded lawmakers that the $487 billion reduction in Pentagon spending the president is implementing is their own handiwork.

“It was this Congress that mandated, on a bipartisan basis, that we reduce the Defense budget, and we need your partnership to do this in a manner that preserves the strongest military in the world,” Panetta said in prepared testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “This will be a test of whether reducing the deficit is about talk or action.”

The Defense secretary urged lawmakers to take stock of the reductions the military is making and understand the critical need to avoid another $500 billion in defense cuts through sequestration. 

“My hope is that now that we see the sacrifice involved in reducing the defense budget by almost half a trillion dollars, Congress will be convinced of its important responsibility to make sure that we avoid sequestration,” Panetta said. “That would be a doubling of the cuts, another roughly $500 billion in additional cuts that would be required to take place through a meat-ax approach, and that we are convinced would hollow out the force and inflict severe damage on our national defense.”

Republicans have hammered Obama and Panetta over the budget and the new strategy, warning the policies would reduce U.S. forces to a dangerously low level and endanger the nation’s military superiority.

“It asks the men and women in uniform who have given so much already to give that much more, so that the president might fund programs the American people don’t want and can’t afford,” said Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, which will question Panetta and Dempsey on Wednesday. 

The 2013 budget request reduces the base Pentagon budget by $5 billion, to $525 billion, and war funding by $27 billion, to $88 billion, with the latter due to the end of the war in Iraq and the drawdown in Afghanistan. The cuts are part of the debt-ceiling deal reached in August, which mandated $487 billion in cuts to the Pentagon over the next decade.

Obama and Panetta have responded to Republican criticism by saying the budget reductions have the full backing of the top military generals.

Democrats rallied to the president’s defense Monday, arguing his budget plan is a sensible way to shrink the Pentagon.

“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 enhances national security by spending taxpayer dollars more wisely and effectively,” said House Armed Services ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.). “I believe this budget meets that goal.”

But Democrats are likely to have their own beef with the Pentagon budget; they have objected as loudly as Republicans to the president’s call for two more rounds of base closures in the United States.

The week’s hearings will be the opening bout in a two-front battle that will play out in 2012 between Republicans and the Obama administration.

Panetta and Pentagon officials have urged Congress to adopt the budget as an entire package, saying changing individual pieces could cause a ripple effect that would wipe out the savings. Lawmakers are unlikely to oblige that request.

The Pentagon’s budget does not take into account the $500 billion in automatic cuts through sequestration that are set to take effect in January 2013.

“Based on the budget released today, it is clear that neither the Defense Department nor the Obama administration have made any serious plans to avoid the additional defense cuts” from sequestration, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement. 

“Every military and civilian defense official has said these draconian cuts represent a threat to our national security, and must not occur.”

Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale said at a Monday briefing that the Pentagon is not making plans for the sequestration. 

“I know nobody believes this, but it’s true,” Hale said. He said the Pentagon is following the Office of Management and Budget, “which did not anticipate the sequester.”

Todd Harrison, a budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said last week that ignoring sequestration is in part a political ploy by the Pentagon to prevent the cuts from ultimately occurring.

“Perhaps the most important open question in this budget is what will happen if sequestration cannot be avoided?” he wrote in an analysis of Monday’s budget. “The budget request and new strategic guidance are of little consequence until this uncertainty is resolved.”

Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, predicted that the biggest complaints from Congress about the budget would be about pay and benefits for soldiers and about local base closures.

“Cutting the Army’s brigades, particularly if it involves forcing soldiers out involuntarily, is a big issue,” Thompson said. “Trims to any benefits will get a cacophony of complaints from Congress.”

The Pentagon proposed a reduction of 100,000 in end strength across the services, with nearly three-quarters coming from the Army.

“I don’t think we can stand here and say there won’t be any involuntary separations,” Hale said in Monday’s briefing.

The budget also included an increase in fees for Tricare, the military’s healthcare program, and a new enrollment free for Tricare for Life, a health program for retirees.

The budget reflects the strategy shift that places a new focus on the Asia-Pacific region. The proposal includes $10.4 billion for special-operations forces, $3.7 billion for unmanned drones, $300 million to fund the next-generation bomber and $3.4 billion for cybersecurity.

But critics of the president’s proposal say the budget doesn’t do enough to shift the military’s resources.

Mackenzie Eaglen, an analyst at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, called the new budget a “paper pivot” to the Pacific.

“The president is proposing to retire massive numbers of ships and aircraft before the end of their service lives at a time when numbers matter because the demand for U.S. presence abroad is not declining,” she said.

— This story was posted at 5:30 a.m. and has been updated.