House GOP chairmen balk at defense cuts

Lawmakers want to know the national security implications of a worst-case deficit-reduction scenario.

In an attempt to protect the Pentagon's coffers from sizable cuts, three top House Republicans are demanding the Obama administration lay out the national security implications should a worst-case deficit-reduction scenario become reality and trigger more than $800 billion in defense cuts.

None of the three lawmakers -- House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla. -- are on the powerful joint committee charged with finding at least $1.2 trillion in savings, nor are any GOP members of their respective panels.

But their demands, outlined in an August 10 letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and White House budget chief Jack Lew, seem timed to influence the committee's work, as well as ongoing budget negotiations within the administration for fiscal 2013.

Legislation enacted earlier this month does not mandate a specific upfront cut from the Defense Department, but rather places caps on discretionary spending to find an initial government-wide $900 billion in savings aimed at reducing the deficit.

The White House, however, has said it intends to use those caps to reduce the Defense Department's base budget by $350 billion over the next 10 years - a move that is in line with an announcement President Obama made in April to reduce security spending by $400 billion over 12 years.

"This would be an unprecedented drawdown in defense while U.S. forces are committed to contingency operations in Afghanistan and Libya, and possibly still in Iraq," the lawmakers wrote.

What's even more troubling to defense hawks, however, is if the joint committee fails to find the requisite $1.2 trillion in savings. The Defense Department would be targeted for an additional $500 billion across-the-board cut, dubbed "sequestration," between 2013 and 2021 - a scenario that senior defense officials have called dangerous.

Sequestration is intended to be a worst-case scenario that party leaders hope would prevent partisan gridlock and force both sides to come to an agreement by the Thanksgiving deadline. Domestic accounts would be similarly targeted, providing both parties with strong incentive to compromise.

But defense hawks continue to worry that sequestration could become reality -- and, according to the letter, that the Office of Management and Budget may be directing the Pentagon to plan its budgets around it.

The Pentagon has said it is planning only for the $350 billion cut, but the lawmakers asked OMB to clarify what it wants the department to use as its basis as it prepares the budget proposal it will deliver to Congress in February.

"In your recent press conference, Secretary Panetta, you stated that the cuts contemplated by sequestration would 'do real damage to our national security, our troops and their families, and our military's ability to protect the nation,'" the GOP lawmakers wrote. "Therefore we ask about the national security consequences if the 'doomsday mechanism' is triggered and sequestration takes place for fiscal years 2013-2021."

In their letter, the chairmen also criticized the administration for taking a "budget-first approach" and targeting the Pentagon for $350 billion in cuts before military officials complete their ongoing review of strategy, missions and requirements.

The lawmakers want a peak at any preliminary conclusions from the Pentagon's ongoing strategic review to inform debate on the spending bill for fiscal 2012, which begins in less than two months. The joint committee could also presumably use that information during its deliberations this fall.

"Since we have not seen the outcome of the administration's strategic review, it is imperative that members of Congress, and particularly members of our committees, obtain a letter of understanding of the impact of these reductions on the Defense Department and its ability to meet its mission," they wrote.