On Defense cuts, is it time to start bargaining down?

While the pending $1 trillion in across-the-board discretionary spending cuts to domestic programs and defense was the subject of numerous Capitol Hill hearings, rallies and think tank events prior to the Nov. 6 election, the topic proved not to hold the sway with voters that many conservatives hoped it would.

Virginia, the state expected to be the most severely affected by the defense cuts, broke for President Barack Obama by a narrow margin. And Republican challenger Mitt Romney???s platform plank of shoring up defense and ending the sequester failed to carry him to victory.

Moreover, the new deadline for sequestration???the word for automatic spending cuts agreed to in the Budget Control Act of 2011???will coincide with the coming debt ceiling crisis, which may again push what some are calling a ???devastating??? package of cuts out of the political spotlight.

Tellingly, some defense hawks already have begun to anticipate some degree of cutback as unavoidable, and to propose practical and reasoned solutions.

The organization Concerned Veterans for America premiered a study at a December event isolating a handful of thoughtful and reasoned areas for cost cuts and savings, including a comprehensive Pentagon audit, discontinuation of the ???dysfunctional??? and costly Medium Extended Air [missile] Defense System, and cutbacks on nonessential defense functions such as green energy investments and base grocery stores. Brookings Institution fellow Michael O???Hanlon said any further cuts to defense would be undesirable and risky, but acknowledged the Defense Department could find savings???though likely at the level of $100 billion, not $500 billion as sequestration would dictate.

At the event, defense hardliner Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) gave a cautious endorsement to the plan.

???If we don???t know how these things are unfolding, then I think we???re making a very poor national security decision driven by budgets, so now is not the time in my view to go much beyond the $487 billion (in defense cuts taken last year),??? he said. ???But when we talk about how to reduce spending, sign me up for Michael???s analysis of trying to do more with less.???

American Enterprise Institute resident fellow Mackenzie Eaglen, a sequestration expert, said she had trouble seeing any sequestration-halting deal that avoided more cuts to defense. ???At the end of the day, there aren???t going to be any more acceptable alternative spending cuts to replace the sequester, or more tax increases,??? she said. ???We know some type of sequestration???s going to happen for defense, because there is nowhere else to go. The continuous punting is not a solution.???

While Democratic Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (Mich.) has also cited $100 billion as a potentially acceptable figure, Eaglen said she wouldn???t be surprised if Congress ???split the baby,??? meting out $250 billion worth of cuts to the Pentagon, instead of $500 billion.

How debilitating these cutbacks will be for defense may be determined in part by how thoughtfully they are implemented.

David Langstaff, CEO of defense contracting corporation Tasc, Inc., broke tradition with fellow CEOs in the field in December by admitting that the current fiscal crisis would require spending cuts, and some of those would likely have to come from the defense field. But he told Human Events he wasn???t advocating for an additional burden of reductions to defense, and certainly not without careful forethought.

???If we are to avoid sequestration and agree on a set of negotiated reductions, it???s unlikely that defense will get a free pass,??? he said. ???We need to recognize that defense, under the Budget Control Act has, really done some heavy lifting already. We???ve got to be very careful about imposing additional cuts on defense. But to the extent that cuts are needed over the next ten years, what???s important that these are done in a rational stair step reduction and not in an immediate disregard to strategy.???

Whether Congress starts to negotiate a new sequester deal now or waits until midnight on Feb. 28 could make all the difference.