Senators quietly laying groundwork for looming defense sequestration fight

While it is all but guaranteed that Congress won't weigh in on how to handle the nearly $500 billion in looming defense cuts until after the presidential election, that has not stopped a handful of senators from laying the groundwork for that coming fight. 

A bipartisan group of roughly 30 senators have been meeting behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, busily discussing possible funding alternatives that could be formulated into a compromise sequestration plan, according to members of a new debt reduction task force sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

ADVERTISEMENT
The task force has been consulting with these lawmakers during their deliberations, pushing the senators to start considering ways to stave off cuts to the Pentagon's budget, task force member and former Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro said last Tuesday. 

Led by former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), former National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones and former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, the task force is drafting its own alternative sequestration plan. 

The Pentagon is already staring down a roughly $450 billion decrease in spending spread across the next 10 years as a result of the debt deal lawmakers approved last August. 

But after a bipartisan supercommittee, created as part of the White House's debt restructuring deal last year, failed to trim $1.2 trillion from federal coffers, DOD was saddled with an additional $500 billion in automatic cuts over the next decade under the sequestration plan. 

Those automatic reductions would put the department in a nearly $1 trillion hole — a situation that top U.S. defense officials claim would break the back of the military. 

Implementing those defense cuts, beginning next year, would be the equivalent of a government shutdown for the Pentagon, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert told Congress in March.

The massive planning and preparation needed to implement the cuts would tie up service and department personnel for months and could essentially bring U.S. military operations to a halt.

That said, the Defense Department is adamant it will not begin planning for the $500 billion reduction until this summer. Congress said it will not begin realistically weighing sequestration options until after November. 

But that hasn't stopped a handful of Senate Republicans from pressing hard on the issue on Capitol Hill. 

Last Wednesday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pitched an amendment to the farm bill forcing the Pentagon to outline sequestration's impact to the military. That legislation was backed by every single GOP member on the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

The move follows in the footsteps of legislation proposed by Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) in May, calling for an administration-wide report on the effects of sequestration.

McCain has promised to tack a sequestration amendment to every pending piece of legislation until the mandate was passed into law.  

The Arizona Senator and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham have made overtures that they were open to revenue increases, in order to avoid defense cuts under sequestration, according to recent reports in the National Journal. 

Up until now, Senate and House Republicans have been adamantly opposed to any tax increases to stave off sequester. 

A House GOP plan pitched in May leaned heavily on cuts to social welfare programs to stave off automatic defense spending reductions

For his part, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta panned the House Republican plan, saying it was a recipe for "confrontation [and] gridlock" that will only make automatic defense cuts more likely to happen, according to Panetta. 

The Pentagon chief also slammed congressional leaders for putting off any decision on sequestration into the congressional lame duck session. 

"I think the greater danger is [Congress will] try to kick the can down the road on all of those issues [and] I think that's unacceptable, particularly when it comes to the sequester issue," he told reporters on May 1.

--This story was updated at 3:57pm