Panetta wants action in lame duck

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday laid out an ambitious agenda he said Congress should take up in a lame-duck session. 

Panetta called on Congress to come up with an alternative to the $500 billion in spending cuts set to begin hitting the Pentagon in November. Stopping those cuts is Panetta's No. 1 priority. 

But he also called on Congress to finalize 2013 appropriations and authorization bills for his department, and to move cybersecurity legislation. Finally, he said the Senate should approve Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford as the new commander for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. 

ADVERTISEMENT
"This is a full agenda" demanding strong bipartisan cooperation on Capitol Hill, particularly in the wake of what promises to be a close election between President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney, Panetta said. 

A congressional impasse over spending has led to mounting financial uncertainty within the Pentagon, which is now bleeding over into the department's strategic efforts to rebuild the U.S. military after over a decade of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Panetta. 

"I do not have that [stability] right now, and that is a major concern," he said. 

Lawmakers remain deadlocked along partisan lines on how to spare the Pentagon from the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. 

As a result, key pieces of defense spending legislation have been left languishing in bureaucratic limbo as lawmakers continue to feud over the best way to duck the automatic cuts. 

DOD and other government agencies have been operating on a six-month continuing resolution, extending fiscal 2012 spending levels for the Pentagon into the current fiscal year. 

The department's ongoing work to build its fiscal 2014 budget plan is "not based on what Congress has done, because Congress has not done anything," Panetta said. 

"What kind of [financial] stability am I going to have" in trying to map out the next 10 years for the Pentagon? he added. 

Congress is unlikely to complete everything mentioned on Panetta's agenda. Stopping the automatic spending cuts will clearly be a priority, and President Obama at this week's debate said those cuts would "not happen," though his aides quickly backtracked from that statement. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has called for a vote on cybersecurity legislation in November, but observers are not optimistic that a final product will reach the president's desk, given ongoing differences over the bill. 

Panetta earlier this month sounded the alarm on the need for cybersecurity legislation, saying the U.S. was at risk for a Pearl Harbor-like attack in the cyber realm. 

"If a crippling cyberattack were launched against our nation, the American people must be defended," Panetta said in an Oct. 10 keynote address to the Business Executives For National Security conference in New York. 

"And if the commander in chief orders a response, the Defense Department must be ready to act," he added at the time.