Hearing dings Armed Services panel's bipartisan reputation

The committee’s ranking member, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), felt compelled to issue a statement after the hearing that said he was displeased with the tone of the hearing.

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Zients and Republican lawmakers battled over who was to blame for the looming sequestration cuts, the $1 trillion, 10-year spending reduction that is set to hit in January.

The cuts have taken on an increasingly partisan tone throughout Washington in recent weeks as they’ve attracted greater attention and taken on a role in the presidential race.

Zients, who was testifying alongside Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter, said that Republicans were at fault for preventing Congress from finding alternate deficit reductions that would reverse the sequester.

“The root of the problem is the refusal of Republicans to acknowledge the top 2 percent have to pay their fair share,” Zients said.

His comments angered Republican lawmakers, who pushed back that sequestration was President Obama’s fault for failing to bring forward any reasonable plan, while Republicans had passed a budget to undo the first year of cuts.

When Zients tried to argue that Obama’s budget would stop sequestration, he was cut off by Republicans who said that did not get a single vote in Congress.

“I want to commend you on your broken record of your partisanship with respect to the fiction of the fact that this administration has a budget or a plan,” Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) told Zients.

The hearing was most heated when Turner and Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) were questioning Zients, as the lawmakers and budget chiefs repeatedly talked over one another.

During one exchange between, ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) angrily interrupted Turner and accused him of badgering the witness.

“If you want to give a speech, you can give a speech,” Smith said. “The witness has to get more than two seconds out of his mouth if you're asking him a question.”

The hearing showcased how deep the partisan divide is on sequestration, even though both parties want to stop the cuts. The issue is poised to get swept up in the end-of-year fiscal cliff negotiations that will also involve the Bush-era tax rates and another possible raising of the debt limit.

Wednesday's hearing was panned by several defense analysts, such as the Stimson Center’s Gordon Adams, who wrote it turned into a “partisan food fight.”

While McKeon lamented the tone of the hearing, he placed the blame on Zients for it going off the tracks.

“This is a bipartisan committee, and I think this is probably in my time the first time that we've had a witness come that has actually told us what Republicans should do and what Democrats should do,” McKeon said.

But Smith disagreed, and suggested that the committee might not be as bipartisan as advertised.

“Normally on the Armed Services Committee, the members of the committee are very partisan, but our witnesses are from the DOD and they don't really fight back,” Smith said. “And today, we finally had someone who was willing to punch back. So that was about the only thing that was different.”