House Republicans are demanding an explanation from President Obama for the “morally unconscionable” decision to toss war funding into the pool of automatic budget cuts facing the Pentagon.
In a sharply worded letter sent to the White House on Monday, the Republican heads of the House Defense, Intelligence and Foreign Affairs committees lambasted Obama for reneging on promises to exempt war funding from pending budget cuts.
"We were assured that sequestration would not apply to the troops on the frontline," wrote House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), head of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
"To impose arbitrary and automatic cuts to our warfighters, who are putting their lives on the line for our country, would be morally unconscionable and would break faith with them and their families," they wrote.
The letter could be the opening salvo in a congressional effort to fence off war funding from looming cuts to defense spending.
In November, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta all but guaranteed funding for the war in Afghanistan would remain untouched by the $500 billion in defense cuts set to begin in January.
But in May, officials from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) concluded that wartime funds budgeted under the Pentagon's overseas contingency operations account would be fair game under sequestration.
That means the $88 billion DOD requested for operations in Afghanistan would be slashed by 10 to 15 percent in fiscal 2013, along with the rest of the Pentagon's other spending accounts.
House lawmakers want to know why the White House and Pentagon interpreted the issue of war funding so differently, and how the Obama administration decided to subject war funds to budget cuts just as American forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014.
DOD was saddled with the $500 billion in automatic cuts under the sequestration plan after a bipartisan supercommittee, created as part of the White House's debt restructuring deal last year, failed to trim $1.2 trillion from the federal ledger.
In the letter, McKeon, Rogers and Ros-Lehtinen pointed out the sequestration plan did not explicitly address how supplemental war funds would be tied to Pentagon budget cuts.
"If there is flexibility in the law, we urge you stand on the side of the troops [and] do not apply sequester to [wartime] activities," they wrote.
"We believe that we can agree that placing the burden of sequestration on the backs of deployed, active-duty soldiers is not the preferred solution.”
Members of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s new defense sequestration task force last week argued that including war funds under sequestration would be a political disaster for Democrats and the White House.
The task force, led by former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and former National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones, predicted the move would be so politically unpalatable that Congress would have no choice but to block it
"It will not be there, I guarantee you," task force member and former Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro said on Tuesday regarding cuts to Afghan war funding.
Punaro predicted legislation to protect war funds would likely be introduced as an amendment to a continuing budget resolution, if Congress fails to get the fiscal 2013 defense spending bill to the White House by September.
Lawmakers could also introduce standalone legislation on the House or Senate floor designed to rope off DOD dollars for Afghanistan, he said.
Another alternative would be a proposal tailored specifically to protect funds for combat operations and repairing damaged vehicles and equipment used in Afghanistan.
A bipartisan group of roughly 30 senators, meeting behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, is already hashing out alternative sequestration options. Members of the Domenici-Jones group have been in consultation with those lawmakers as the talks progress, Punaro said.