McCain vows 'one hell of a fight' on sequestration

McCain vows 'one hell of a fight' on sequestration
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Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary Defending their honor as we hear their testimony MORE, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, declared war on sequestration earlier this week. 

"Next week, [Defense Secretary] Ash Carter is going to come over with a budget and then we're going to have one hell of a fight over sequestration," McCain said at a New America Foundation conference on Wednesday. 

"I will not vote for a budget in the United States Senate that has sequestration in it. I can't do that to the men and women who are serving," he said. 

McCain said he didn't know how many people were with him. 

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"I've never been very good at counting votes but I do know that there is real unease out there about continuing the sequestration," he said. 

Although the White House has proposed a 2016 defense base budget of $535 billion, budget caps imposed by sequestration would limit the budget to $500 billion and force the military to cut things like weapons systems, training and manpower. 

Sequestration, a mechanism passed by Congress in the 2011 Budget Control Act, cut the government's budget by $1 trillion over 10 years — $500 billion of that from the Pentagon's budget alone — after lawmakers were unable to reach a deal on spending and tax reform.

Reversing sequestration would require an act of law by Congress, but whether lawmakers could agree on tax and spending reform is unclear. Fiscal hawks and liberals are also wary of uncontrolled defense spending, and some liberals say any lifting of defense cuts should be accompanied by lifting cuts on social programs. 

Lawmakers were able to partially lift defense budget caps in 2014 and 2015, but the caps are set to return in October with the new fiscal year — and could force the Navy to retire an aircraft carrier, the Army to reduce troops to World War II levels and the Air Force to cut critical weapons systems. Military training and readiness would be affected across the board. 

If Congress does not raise the budget caps, lawmakers will either have to find ways to meet the $500 billion limit or allow cuts of $35 billion to go into affect, slicing the same percentage off nearly every Pentagon program except for pay and benefits. 

"I worry a little bit ... as I mentioned, sequester is about $40 billion lower than the lower ragged edge of what it takes to defend the country," McCain said.

"We'll never succeed, but we want as much as possible a policy-driven budget rather than just take the Pentagon's numbers and see how we can cram it into different areas, so I'm really trying to work as hard as I can on that aspect," he added.  

McCain has vowed to work with Carter and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) to reform the defense acquisition system to reduce waste in the Pentagon's purchases of major weapons systems. 

At Carter's confirmation hearing for Defense secretary earlier this month, McCain mentioned the Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, the Navy's Littoral Combat Ship program and the Gerald Ford Class Nuclear Aircraft Carrier, and the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. 

Thornberry sounded optimistic in recent remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.  

"We have a major reform effort on acquisition, both the goods and services, that we're working with the Pentagon on," he said Tuesday at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. 

"We're not going to fix it, but we're going to try to make some improvements, and then keep — keep after it," he said. 

—Updated at 11:52 p.m.