Before departing for a two-week Easter recess Thursday, Republican senators renewed a plea for bipartisan collaboration to avoid a round of crippling budget cuts to the Defense Department.
Under an agreement reached last year by legislators on both sides of the aisle, automatic budget cuts to the Defense Department could reduce its funding by $500 billion over the next 10 years–on top of the $487 billion the department has already been ordered to find and slash. The cuts, which Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has repeatedly called a “meat ax,” would take effect on Jan. 1 and would create particularly dire financial straits for the department in Fiscal 2013.
Other federal departments, including Education, are expected to take a budget hit under this Budget Control Act requirement, called sequestration, but DoD has received most of the attention on the issue, as it is slated to absorb half of the cuts.
The lawmakers did not present a clear path around sequestration at a morning news conference, but said they would be willing to consider any options to avoid the measure.
“It’s as devastating as it can be,” said SASC senior member Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), citing figures provided by Panetta.
In a November letter to Senate Armed Services Committee members Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Panetta illustrated the specter of sequestration by describing the ways the mandated cuts would likely take shape.
In the short term, he wrote, DoD would have to shrink major weapons development programs, reduce its civilian workforce, and downscale training, although active wartime operations would be exempted.
Long-term, the reductions would lead to the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest Naval fleet–fewer than 230 ships, a reduction of 50–since 1915, and the smallest Air Force tactical fighter force in the service’s history.
“What that means, ladies and gentlemen, are American lives, American casualties,” Inhofe said.
Joining him to denounce sequestration were McCain, Graham, and Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), John Cornyn (R-TX), David Vitter (R-LA), and Marco Rubio (R-FL).
“We’re open to any ideas,” Kyl said. “This has to be a bipartisan exercise.”
McCain, who called the prospect of sequestration unprecedented, said the matter couldn’t wait until the end of the year for resolution, as Pentagon officials needed to know how to plan for upcoming years.
“It needs to be done sooner rather than later,” he said. “To give the degree of uncertainty to the Pentagon that they are now existing under is unacceptable to American national security.”
Graham called on President Barack Obama to convene a bipartisan conference to work to prevent sequestration, while Kyl chided Obama for threatening late last year to veto the efforts of Republicans to thwart the sledgehammer of across-the-board cuts.
An effort to advance an alternative cost-cutting approach was introduced late last year by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) The Downpayment to Protect National Security Act would slim down the overall Federal workforce by 10 percent over 10 years by putting a stay on new hires. The bill would require agency heads to hire no more than one new employee for every three that leave employment and set strict discretionary spending limits for federal departments. With 71 cosponsors, all Republicans, the bill remains in the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Last month, Kyl introduced a similar bill, the Down Payment to Protect National Security Act of 2012. Now in the Senate Budget Committee, the bill has eight co-sponsors, most of whom spoke at Thursday’s news conference.
Neither bill was mentioned during the presser, however, as the legislators opted to emphasize bipartisan solutions and collaboration without naming a specific plan.
But McCain said GOP leaders would continue to push for ways to protect the Defense Department.
“It was Republican leadership that agreed to sequestration as well as Democratic leadership,” he said. “The blame is there, so the responsibility is there.”