Panetta thanks Congress for kicking can on defense cuts

One of the few voices rising in praise of the congressional cliff deal that left alive the crises of sequestration and the debt ceiling is that of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

In a Wednesday afternoon statement, Panetta praised lawmakers for postponing sequestration, or the fiscal cliff consequence that would shear more than $500 billion from planned defense spending over the next decade, for another two months. While   the cuts could be worse for the wait, as the Pentagon will have less time to share out the roughly $60 billion in cuts that would have to be taken in the remainder of 2013, Panetta said he was glad to see the damage delayed.

“On behalf of the Department of Defense, I want to express our thanks to the Democratic and Republican Members of Congress who voted to temporarily avert sequestration,” Panetta said.  “…Had Congress not acted, the Department of Defense — along with other federal agencies — would have been forced to begin taking dramatic steps that would have severely impacted our civilian personnel and disrupted our mission.”

If sequestration had taken effect today, Jan. 2, Panetta would have had to send out 800,000 warning notices to DoD civilian employees telling them they could be furloughed, he said.

Despite expressing gratitude that few might feel for the delay, Panetta did urge Congress to act quickly to resolve and replace sequestration cuts, which he has frequently called “devastating.”

“The responsibility now is to eliminate it as a threat by enacting balanced deficit reduction.  Congress cannot continue to just kick the can down the road,” he said.

Still unclear is whether Panetta will be at the helm of the Defense Department to orchestrate the planning of cuts if they do take place in March after all. Former Republican senator Chuck Hagel is President Barack Obama’s rumored favorite to replace Panetta in the position, and could be nominated and confirmed in time to oversee the aftermath of sequestration if no deal is reached.