White House fires back on war cuts, tells Congress to 'do its job' to stop sequester

The White House is challenging Congress to “do its job” and prevent the automatic spending cuts that are looming for the Pentagon. 

Republican lawmakers have criticized the Obama administration’s decision to include funding for the war in Afghanistan in the “sequestered” budget cuts that are on tap for 2013. A group of top GOP lawmakers sent President Obama a letter this week demanding an explanation for the “morally unconscionable” policy.

The White House fired back at the criticism, arguing the war funding was never off the table for the automatic budget cuts.

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"The law does not grant the executive branch the flexibility to exempt [war funding] from sequestration," acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Jeffery Zients wrote in a letter sent Friday.

Zients chastised lawmakers, noting that only Congress can stop sequestration from beginning in 2013. 

"Congress has time to act to avoid [sequestration] by passing balanced deficit reduction ... it was charged to undertake in the [Budget Control Act]," Zients said, referring to last year's debt reduction deal that spawned the sequestered cuts.  

"Should it get to a point where it appears Congress will not do its job ... let me assure you that OMB, DOD and the entire administration will be prepared," Zients wrote. 

While DOD and other government organizations have not gone into full-fledged planning for sequestration, OMB "is conducting the [necessary] analysis ... needed to move forward if necessary," Zients said in the letter.

The broadside from Zients was a response to the GOP letter from 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.

The fight erupted after OMB announced that funding for the Pentagon's overseas contingency operations (OCO) accounts would be included in sequestration. Combat operations in Afghanistan are financed almost exclusively by OCO accounts. 

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had all but guaranteed the OCO funds would be untouched by the $500 billion in defense cuts set to begin in January under sequestration. 

But Panetta and others inside DOD had incorrectly concluded that since the war accounts were funded outside the Pentagon's annual budget requests, "they would not be a factor" regarding sequestration, according to Zients. 

"But after extensive analysis and consultation between OMB and DOD, we have identified no statutory basis for ... exempting OCO funds," Zients wrote.

The battle over war funds comes as lawmakers work behind the scenes to try and craft an agreement to replace the sequestered cuts to defense by the end of the year.

A bipartisan group of roughly 30 senators have been meeting behind closed doors on Capitol Hill discussing possible funding alternatives that could be formulated into a compromise sequestration plan. 

On Thursday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) suggested both sides could come up with a "framework" for a possible sequester plan ahead of the elections. 

That bipartisan framework would at least set the parameters for the debate and see where common ground exists between the parties, "even if there is no flesh on the bones," Levin said. 

But recent talks on a possible sequestration deal have been bogged down by GOP claims that Senate Democrats are upping the ante on their demands for tax increases. 

Top Senate Republicans had signaled in recent weeks they were open to closing tax loopholes in exchange for concessions from Democrats on certain domestic spending cuts.

But those overtures, Republicans say, have only been met by even more Democratic demands for revenue increases. “The goalposts are continually being moved,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Tuesday. 

Cornyn indicated that the insistence by Democrats on eliminating the George W. Bush-era tax rates for the wealthy and other reforms shunned by congressional Republicans has squandered goodwill from the GOP side of the talks.

"I’ve had maybe 200 conversations with different senators about different ways to address the issue of sequestration. So far all of them are going nowhere," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told reporters Tuesday.