By the end of this week, the Pentagon must submit its plans to the White House for how it will deal with automatic defense spending cuts set to kick in March 1, according to defense sources.
That Feb. 8 deadline will mark the beginning of a series of high-level meetings with lawmakers scheduled throughout what will be a hectic February as the calendar inches toward the automatic cuts, known as sequestration.
Unless Congress takes action, which seemed unlikely last week, sequestration calls for a series of defense spending cuts totaling $500 billion over 10 years.
On Feb. 15, the Pentagon will send Congress a request for authorization to furlough civilian workers, defense sources said. DoD is the only federal department that has to make this type of request, necessary to allow 45 days before furloughs begin.
While those behind-the-scenes moves take place, a number of 11th-hour hearings on the budget crisis are scheduled or are in the planning process.
Congressional aides and Pentagon officials are working to arrange a hearing with the service chiefs before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 12, defense sources said. The same Senate panel is planning a hearing Feb. 26 with former service chiefs. The service chiefs also are scheduled to appear before the House Appropriations defense subcommittee Feb. 26., sources said.
Other hearings are possible, but they will likely be too late to make a difference before sequestration hits March 1, the defense sources said.
Senior defense officials are resigning themselves that Congress will not be able to avert or delay sequestration.
The uncertainty surrounding the budget process — due to the threat of sequestration and the absence of a 2013 defense appropriations bill, which freezes Pentagon spending at 2012 levels and prevents new programs from starting — has hamstrung Pentagon planning.
DoD officials have put together a 2014 budget proposal, but it has not been finalized. The administration typically sends its budget proposal to Capitol Hill in early February, however that has been delayed.
The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) gave the Pentagon its so-called passback 2014 guidance Jan. 28, a defense official said. That guidance is “incomplete,” the official noted.
Another source said there is a debate over whether funding is put in the base budget or overseas contingency operations supplemental.
A defense source said the most recent OMB guidance instructed the Pentagon to cut $5.8 billion from its latest 2014 budget proposal, which does not factor in sequestration.
The Pentagon fiscal 2014 budget proposal is due to the White House on March 1.
In a series of explicit documents, the Navy has laid out specifics of how a yearlong continuing resolution would impact operations. Those documents said the sea service would need to slash $4.6 billion from operations and maintenance budgets within months should sequestration strike and another $4.6 billion between now and October should a full-year continuing resolution be used.
The Air Force and Army are expected to release their own documents soon detailing drastic measures that would result from both a yearlong continuing resolution and sequestration.
Gordon Adams, who oversaw defense budgets at OMB during the Clinton administration, said he was taken aback at how vocal the service chiefs have been about specific impacts of sequestration, even before submitting detailed sequestration plans to DoD leadership.
“I’m a little surprised at the full-bore, public campaign that the service chiefs are running right now,” Adams said, referring to letters sent in January to Congress.
But it is unclear whether the Pentagon’s budget crisis warnings will make a difference.
Little Action on The Hill
Evidence indicates any plan to avert sequestration would likely have to originate in the Senate. Yet no such effort appears to be underway, Republican and Democratic lawmakers said.
Many of the most fervent foes of sequestration reside in the House. But lawmakers and sources told Defense News those members largely are convinced the funding reductions will kick in starting March 1.
“There’s nothing going on in the House of Representatives,” said House Armed Services Committee member Joe Courtney, D-Conn. “If anything is going to happen, it’s going to have to come out of the Senate at this point.”
One Democratic source put it more bluntly: “Once again, the United States Senate is going to have to save us all.”
Lawmakers and sources tell Defense News no substantial bipartisan group of House members has formed to even talk about how to avoid the coming defense cuts, which would slice around 9 percent off all nonexempt Pentagon accounts each year for 10 years.
“There really aren’t any discussions taking place at present,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., also said he is not involved in any large-scale effort to craft legislation that would avoid the sequester cuts.
But Levin is piecing together his own plan.
“My focus on the sequester is going to be to focus on closing these corporate and tax-haven loopholes,” Levin said. “If we close them, it can produce hundreds of billions of dollars and make a major contribution toward deficit-reduction — and avoid the sequester.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said some Democratic members have had talks about how to avoid the sequester cuts, but did not identify any major push to craft legislation that would do so before March 1.
The Californian wants Republicans to drop their collective reluctance to count planned war funding savings against deficit-reduction requirements in the 2011 Budget Control Act.
“That could be used to offset some of the sequester. I wish they would embrace that,” Boxer said.
The biggest hurdle continues to be cobbling together a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction package that Obama administration officials and members of both parties on Capitol Hill can support.
Levin and Boxer floated ideas last week to which many House Republicans, for instance, so far remain ideologically opposed. Republicans are dead set against any additional revenue-generating measures. And that makes Levin’s plan a potential long shot to become law even if it passed the Senate.
And, for congressional Democrats, the House GOP only puts forth plans with cuts to domestic programs that, as Boxer put it, “would devastate this country and middle class and the working poor.”
“We Democrats in the Senate would like to come up with an alternative to that because it’s definitely going to have an adverse impact on the economy,” Boxer said in an interview Jan. 29. “We’re working on it. I think we’re going to talk about that at our retreat [this week]. Hopefully we can come up with something that can pass in the House.”
Senators from both parties, including several senior ones, also said last week that they are not involved in any anti-sequestration efforts. Nor have they heard of any such work being done quietly.
And, citing other budgetary and fiscal fights between Congress and the Obama administration in recent years, senators say the ultimate solution is out of their hands.
“I haven’t heard about any specific groups working on that,” Senate Armed Services Committee member Jack Reed said last week.
“This issue applies across the board to every executive agency,” Reed, D-R.I., said in an interview. “The [Senate] leadership is working on it — I hope.”