Panetta: Pentagon has ‘duty’ to help cut deficit

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said the budget poses an “unacceptable risk” to the country and argued there was no reason the Pentagon would make the budget recommendations “other than you’re required by law to do it.”

“In this budget, the U.S. military and our national security are being asked to pay the price for the fiscal responsibility of our government over the last decade,” Lieberman said.

Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the budget “continues the administration’s habit of putting short-term political considerations over our long-term national-security interests.”

“We are told that these proposed cuts are not budget-driven, but based on a thorough strategic review of our defense priorities,” McCain said. “Respectfully, this just doesn’t add up.”

Tuesday’s four-hour hearing was the first of three consecutive days that Panetta and Dempsey will trek across the Potomac to Capitol Hill, with hearings before the House Armed Services Committee and the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee Wednesday and Thursday.

The hearings are the first chance for Congress to question the Pentagon’s leaders this year, which has seen the release of President Obama’s new military strategy, Monday’s $614 billion budget proposal, the withdrawal from Iraq and a number of escalating situations overseas.

The threat of another $500 billion in automatic cuts through sequestration hangs over the 2013 budget process, and the issue was front and center during Tuesday’s hearing.

In his opening statement, Panetta urged Congress to do its part to fix sequestration, and said he hoped the 2013 budget would “convince” Congress that sequestration cannot occur.

Several Republican senators asked why the Pentagon did not plan for sequestration in the 2013 budget. Panetta said that would be impossible because sequestration is an across-the-board, automatic cut.

“It’s not as if we can take sequestration and make sense out of the damn thing,” Panetta said.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) interjected and said sequestration was in fact accounted for in the president’s budget, because it was wiped out by more than $3 trillion in deficit reduction, including tax increases.

Playing off the political tax fight, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss) said he looked forward to an up-or-down vote on the president’s budget. The president’s 2012 budget plan was voted down in the Senate, 97-0.

Senators were bipartisan, however, in their opposition to new rounds of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC). Levin said that he wanted the Pentagon to look for more cuts in Europe before shuttering domestic bases, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said to “count me out” of another BRAC round.

Senators also pressed Panetta and Dempsey on a number of hotspots around the globe, as well as some more parochial concerns.

Panetta said he did not think Israel has made a decision about whether to attack Iran, which the United States, Israel and others accuse of trying to obtain nuclear weapons.

Wicker pressed Panetta about a column that quoted him saying he believed an Israeli strike could occur in the spring. Panetta refused to address it directly.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) grilled Dempsey and Panetta about the U.S. military’s plans for Afghanistan after 2014, when NATO forces are supposed to turn over control of security to Afghan forces.

Panetta said that the U.S. military plans to have an enduring presence in Afghanistan after 2014, though it’s still unclear what that would look like.

“If we leave Afghanistan and the issue is in doubt about the future of the Taliban, we will regret it,” Graham said.

Panetta was also asked about the potential transfer of five Guantánamo prisoners to Qatar as part of peace negotiations with the Taliban. He said that would only occur if there is certainty that the prisoners would not be able to re-enter the battlefield.

On Syria, Dempsey said the situation is very different from the one in Libya, and that a number of concerns — including the regional implications — will affect how the United States proceeds.

But Dempsey said the leaner military that will result from the Pentagon’s budget cuts will still be able to handle whatever crises are thrown at it, and said the top U.S. military officials back the budget. 

“I don't believe this budget incurs unacceptable risk,” Dempsey said.