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Amid Partisan Rancor, Brookings Offers a ‘Moderate' Budget Solution

Feb. 20, 2013 - 02:45PM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
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WASHINGTON As senior congressional Republicans and President Barack Obama continue trading barbs over pending defense spending cuts, a prominent Washington think tank is offering what it dubs a “moderate” plan for $200 billion in Pentagon spending reductions.

A day after Obama used a White House speech to hammer Republican leaders for being unwilling to compromise on a deal to avert twin $500 billion cuts to planned defense and domestic spending, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, panned Obama for refusing to propose a detailed package that would delay or permanently avert them.

“Despite dire warnings from his own secretary of defense for more than a year that the sequester would ‘hollow out' our military, the president has yet to put forward a specific plan that can pass his Democratic-controlled Senate, and has exerted no pressure on the Democratic leadership of the Senate to actually pass legislation to replace the sequester he proposed,” Boehner said in a statement.

“As the commander in chief, President Obama is ultimately responsible for our military readiness,” the speaker said. “So it's fair to ask: What is he doing to stop his sequester that would ‘hollow out' our armed forces?”

Boehner's statement followed several pointed tweets by House and Senate Republican leaders criticizing Obama over the pending sequester cuts, including this one by GOP Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas: “Are there ANY spending cuts President Obama doesn't deem brutal?”

The GOP leaders were hitting back at Obama a day after the president said Republicans have signaled support only for policies that make new deep cuts to federal spending and seek no additional revenue from the wealthy.

“I know that Republicans have proposed some ideas, too,” Obama said. “But, so far, the Republicans' ideas ask nothing” of the 1 percent of highest earners or major corporations, he added, vowing to “not sign” any sequester-averting or fiscal deal he believes hurts the middle class.

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Amid the partisan rhetoric comes a Brookings Institution plan the think tank bills as a “moderate plan for additional defense budget cuts.” The plan, written by Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O'Hanlon, asks a question that has mostly been absent during the nearly 18-month debate about the cuts, known by their now-infamous moniker of sequestration: How much more should defense spending be cut, if at all, as part of further deficit reduction efforts in the United States?”

Many hawkish Republicans, and a few hawkish Democrats, say that answer should be zero. Some deficit hawks in the GOP contend the full $500 billion in national defense sequestration cuts should be allowed to occur. And liberal Democrats agree with the latter group of Republicans.

But more moderate Democrats, who outnumber those two factions, would rather replace the across-the-board defense and domestic cuts with “targeted” reductions and some new revenues. But all Republicans oppose raising new revenue other than by closing some corporate loopholes, but they want to use those funds to reduce other tax rates, not to further pare the deficit.

“For the most part, everyone on the Hill wants to shut off the sequester,” former Pentagon Comptroller Dov Zakheim told Defense News on Tuesday. “But the problem is, they just don't agree on how to do that. That's a big problem.”

Into that fray comes O'Hanlon, who contends $200 billion in cuts to planned Pentagon spending might be part of a deficit-reduction plan that is “politically acceptable” to both political parties and the various factions inside them.

To hit his proposed $200 billion in cuts, O'Hanlon suggests a list of moves, including:

• “The size of the active-duty Army and Marine Corps could be reduced modestly below their 1990s levels (to say 450,000 soldiers and 160,000 Marines),” producing about $80 billion in savings over a decade.

• Using concepts like ones to swap out crew members while Navy ships are at sea, keep a fleet composed of between 260 and 270 ships for about $25 billion in estimated savings.

• Halve the planned U.S. buy of F-35 fighter jets, generating “modest cumulative savings of $10 billion to $20 billion over the coming decade.”

• Cancel the sea service's next-generation ballistic missile submarine program, replacing it with an effort to upgrade existing nuclear-armed submarines, slashing spending by a possible $20 billion over a decade.

O'Hanlon ends the report by stating Pentagon cuts that large should be carried out “only in the context of re-establishing national sacrifice and fiscal discipline across the government.”

His walk-off line strikes a truly moderate tone at a time of fierce national partisanship that is only intensified inside the Beltway:

“America's defense spending levels are not inherently dangerous and are not grossly wasteful. They can however be prudently trimmed beyond what is already planned.”

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