A spokesman for Sen. James Inhofe, above, confirmed that he is crafting legislation that, if passed, would “provide flexibility for defense” if the sequestration cuts are triggered later this week. (Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — In an eleventh-hour reversal, U.S. Senate Republicans are crafting legislation that would grant Pentagon officials the authority to decide what gets cut — and how deeply — if pending budget reductions are triggered Friday.
House and Senate aides to pro-Pentagon lawmakers told Defense News late last week their bosses were not pressing their leadership teams to give Defense Department brass the ability to direct the sequestration cuts, which are slated to bring down planned military spending by $500 billion over the next decade.
On Friday, when asked whether Republicans were planning a legislative move to give the Pentagon more sequester flexibility, a senior Senate GOP leadership aide wrote in an email to Defense News: “I don’t have anything for you on this.”
But as senators trickled back to Washington after a week-long recess, things changed.
The New York Times, in a piece posted on its website Monday, reported three GOP senators are working on a bill that would grant the Defense Department and other federal agencies the ability to implement the cuts: Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
But Inhofe’s spokeswoman Donelle Harder said Tuesday morning, “the portion about Sen. Coburn is misinformation.”
Harder, however, did confirm Inhofe is crafting legislation with Toomey that, if passed by both chambers and signed by President Barack Obama, would “provide flexibility for defense” if the sequestration cuts are triggered later this week.
Harder said Inhofe and Toomey would appear Tuesday evening on Fox News Channel to formally unveil the plan.
Some aides and analysts last week said even if such legislation was introduced in either chamber, it likely would be voted down. That is largely because the White House and Pentagon continue to say they don’t want such flexibility, and prefer another delay to the cuts or a permanent solution.
“At this point in the fiscal year, it doesn’t matter that much. We have to go everywhere to get that $46 billion at this point,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee Feb. 21.
“Right now, we have to go everywhere there are dollars to take,” Carter said. “Although I appreciate any unfettering we could get, but it doesn’t help all that much at this point in the year.”
A White House spokesman referred a reporter to comments on the coming GOP legislation made Monday by Press Secretary Jay Carney. He told reporters that giving the executive branch greater authority would do very little to dull the sequester’s economic impact and the effect on the Defense Department.
Still, Harder contends the Inhofe-Toomey bill “has bipartisan support.”
If Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., agrees to bring up the measure, it could be voted on by the full chamber later this week.
Some lawmakers and defense-sector sources said the Pentagon is better suited to guide these cuts, which are slated to span 10 years and take $500 billion from planned defense spending, because military officials could protect high-priority items and sacrifice lower ones.
Under sequestration, federal agencies would have to trim all nonexempt accounts by an equal amount.
“These cuts are going to happen,” Reid said Tuesday on the senate floor. “My Republican colleagues are standing in the way. … They only want cuts.”
Reid said regular Americans, including those who would be directly impacted by the cuts, “are crying” for the kind of “balanced” solution favored by congressional Democrats and the White House: a mix of new tax revenue raised by closing corporate tax loopholes, more federal spending cuts and some entitlement program reforms.
But Republicans favor delaying or replacing the sequester cuts only with other federal spending reductions.
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday reiterated a new GOP claim: The 2011 Budget Control Act would allow the sequester cuts to be replaced only with other cuts.
To permanently void the $500 billion cuts to planned national defense and domestic spending, Congress and Obama must agree to replace them with around $1 trillion in deficit-reduction measures.
Republicans and Democrats in Washington, since delaying the sequester cuts in January, have not budged over the single biggest issue holding up action to avoid them: Taxes.
“We intend to keep our word,” “McConnell said of the GOP members who voted in favor of the 2011 Budget Control Act, which called for the federal-spending reductions. The Senate’s top Republican added he agrees with pro-military lawmakers that the cuts should be enacted in a more thoughtful way.
But, McConnell added, “The president and his Cabinet secretaries had a year-and-a-half to think about that.”
McConnell made clear Republicans are prepared to allow the cuts to go through, saying the cuts would equal “only a tenth of what the president spent on the [2009 economic] stimulus.
Pointing to the current size of the federal budget, an incredulous McConnell said, “Enough.”