Panetta would take 'whatever the hell deal’ possible to avoid cuts

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday said he'd take any deal that would avoid across-the-board cuts to defense spending. 

Lawmakers have begun floating short-term agreements to stop the $500 billion in defense cuts known as sequestration from beginning in January amid concerns they won't be able to strike a "grand bargain" on taxes and spending. 

“I'll take whatever the hell deal they can make right now to deal with sequestration,” Panetta said.

He said the problem now was Congress had “left town” for the election. “All of this has now been put off into the lame-duck session,” Panetta said.

Sequestration, which would begin next year with cuts of $55 billion in 2013 to both defense and non-defense spending, have become increasingly politicized in the presidential race.

Mitt Romney and his running mate Paul RyanPaul RyanTrump slams ObamaCare after premium hikes announced The Trail 2016: Who is really winning? Pelosi urges end to Pentagon's clawback of soldier overpayments MORE have blamed President Obama for sequestration. On Thursday, Romney traveled to the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. to attack Obama for the defense cuts. The suburbs are swing counties that are home to many who work for defense contractors and the Pentagon.

But Panetta stressed that it was Congress that had to fix the problem, a line Democrats have used to counter GOP attacks on the president. A majority of both parties passed the Budget Control Act last year that set sequestration in motion.

As Panetta began talking about sequestration, the defense secretary took a much harsher tone than during the rest of his press conference. 

“We need stability. You want a strong national defense for this country? I need to have some stability,” Panetta said as his voice raised. “And that's what I'm asking the Congress to do: Give me some stability with regards to the funding of the Defense Department for the future.

Panetta has long railed against sequestration — calling it a “meat axe approach” that would be “devastating” to national security. But in the past he’s stressed that Congress needed to reach an agreement that included new revenues, and his comments Thursday are likely a reflection of the sense that a grand bargain may not be attainable in a jam-packed lame-duck session.

Both Democrats and Republicans want to avoid sequestration and the across-the-board cuts, but they are divided over alternatives. 

The defense cuts have been rolled into a larger debate over taxes, with Democrats saying that Republicans must include tax increases for the wealthy in any deal. Republicans have resisted that, saying that more cuts are needed to mandatory spending programs.