Week ahead: House returns as sequestration looms

Two Republican hawks told The Hill last week that they disagreed with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) when he suggested that sequestration was the best leverage in the upcoming talks for Republicans. The hawks pushed back against Boehner’s claim that he has significant Republican support to allow the cuts to happen, if necessary.

“I don’t support that,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a member of the Armed Services Committee whose district includes one of the nation’s largest military installations. “You get into dangerous territory when you talk about using national security as a bargaining chip with the president.”

Last week the Pentagon took steps to prepare for the potential cuts, which would reduce defense spending roughly $45 billion over the rest of fiscal 2013. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced a hiring freeze and some contract announcement delays at a Thursday press conference as he instructed the military to take steps to lessen the impact of the cuts if they do occur.

The Pentagon’s budget is also uncertain because the continuing resolution funding the government expires in March. The Pentagon wants to get a full appropriations bill passed, but that could be difficult. Defense officials have already said they are delaying the release of the 2014 budget request as a result of all the uncertainty.

Still, the first week back for House members will be relatively light on defense issues, and the Senate isn’t back until after President Obama’s inauguration.

Both the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees are holding organizational meetings on Tuesday. The Republican and Democratic heads of the Armed Services Committee are remaining the same as last year, while Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) is the new chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) the new ranking member.

The Veterans' Affairs Committee is holding its organizational meeting the next week, on Jan. 22.

Panetta, who is winding down his tenure as Defense secretary after former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) was nominated to succeed him, will be traveling to Europe this week.

Panetta is making stops in Portugal, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom in what could be his final trip abroad as Defense secretary.