Republicans, Obama budget chief trade blame for sequestration cuts

Republican lawmakers and the Obama administration’s budget chief blamed one another for sequestration Wednesday as a top Pentagon official warned the automatic spending cuts would lead to an “unready, hollow” military force.

The hearing of the House Armed Services Committee had the air of a partisan fistfight, with Obama budget chief Jeffrey Zients and GOP lawmakers frequently talking over each other.

Zients, the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), chided Republicans for not proposing realistic solutions to stop the sequester cuts. 

“The root cause of the problem here is the Republican refusal to acknowledge that the top 2 percent have to pay their fair share,” Zients said, repeating a common Democratic argument that higher taxes on the wealthy are needed to replace sequestration.

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Republicans fired back that President Obama has done nothing to try and stop the cuts, and frequently interrupted Zients when he tried to say that Obama’s budget fixes sequestration, countering that no one in Congress voted for that proposal.

“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.

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) pressed Zients on whether he thought the “atrocities” of sequestration that could constitute “national defense blackmail” were a proper tool to force deficit reduction.

During one exchange between Turner and Zients, 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.”

At the conclusion of the hearing House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said he was “uncomfortable” with the direction the hearing took and wished it hadn’t happened, though he blamed Zients for telling Republicans and Democrats what they should do.

Smith had another view.

“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,” said Smith.

“And today we finally had someone who was willing to punch back,” he said. “So that was about the only thing that was different.”

The hearing was reflective of the deep divide between Democrats and Republicans over how to solve sequestration, despite the general agreement that it would be devastating for the cuts to actually go into effect.

The first round of the sequester cuts are set to take effect January 2013, and would lead to a $109 billion cut to both defense and non-defense spending.

Doling out blame for the potential $1 trillion, 10-year cuts has become part of the presidential race and congressional campaigns in military-heavy states, and Republican leadership has hammered Obama for not getting personally involved.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Wednesday that sequestration was Obama’s responsibility, and sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) saying he would call back members from recess if the Senate takes up the House’s plan to replace the cuts.

Reid responded by saying the Senate would stay in session if the House would take up the Democratic-backed plan to extend tax rates for the middle class.

Democrats note that a majority of Republicans voted for the Budget Control Act that created sequestration and say it's up to Congress to find a solution. They say that tax increases must be part of a deal to stop it, while Republicans want Democrats to put mandatory spending on the table.

At the hearing, Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that the cuts would lead to “senseless chaos” for the Pentagon and for domestic programs.

Carter began laying out some of the impacts of the $55 billion cut facing the Pentagon in 2013 if the sequestration cuts are not reversed, though he still said it was too soon to launch into specifics.

He said the across-the-board cuts would require the Pentagon to “substantially modify and scale back the new defense strategy,” which was crafted last year as the Defense Department prepared for the $487 billion in budget reductions that are already scheduled for the next decade.

Responding to Republican criticism that the Obama administration is not planning for the cuts, Zients said OMB “would be ready” to implement the sequester on Jan. 2, if needed.

In guidance issued Tuesday, OMB told federal agencies it would begin consulting with them about implementing the sequester and announced that military personnel account would be exempted from the cuts.

Zients said the defense accounts would see an approximate 10 percent across-the-board cut under sequestration, while non-defense discretionary spending would see an 8 percent reduction.

Carter said that the cuts would result in less training for military units, including some later-deploying units to Afghanistan. He said sequestration would lead to the Pentagon in 2013 buying four fewer F-35 fighters, one fewer P-8 aircraft, 12 fewer Stryker vehicles and 300 fewer Army medium and heavy tactical vehicles, although he said the loss of funding would not lead to mass contract terminations.

The DOD civilian workforce could also see a partial hiring freeze or unpaid furloughs, Carter said.

Zients noted several times that five months still remains for Congress to fix sequestration. But McKeon said that, in reality, there are only two legislative weeks left, and he was pessimistic about the lame-duck session where sequestration is only one element of the “fiscal cliff.”

“Then we come back after the election and you know what the environment here will be like: People that have lost their elections that are given a desk down in the basement, said 'don't miss any votes,' to try to solve something that is very, very important, that we haven't been able to solve for a year and a half,” McKeon said. “And so I am frustrated with that.”

— This story was updated at 5:13 p.m.

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