WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers agree pending cuts to planned Pentagon spending almost inevitably will be triggered Friday. Yet one veteran senator is holding out hope — not for an eleventh-hour plan to avoid sequestration, but for “an approach” that might do so.
Republican and Democratic senators painted a bleak picture Tuesday, saying in no uncertain terms that the $500 billion cut to projected military spending over the decade known as sequestration will be triggered at week’s end. But Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., was his usual, optimistic self as he left the Senate floor Tuesday evening, telling reporters he and other members are still talking about forging a plan to avert the cuts.
In a shift of tone, some Republicans trotted out a new line: For the Pentagon, while the remainder of 2013 will be rocky, defense officials and congressional appropriators will regain full control over how to implement the last nine years of the decade-spanning cut during the 2014 budget process.
“If we can’t agree to $1.2 trillion in reductions, God help us,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told Defense News. “I’m not that worried about it. … Some of — not all, OK — the national security guys who have come to see me say, ‘Bob, after the next seven months it’s not that hard to manage,’ because then they can work with the appropriators. It goes back to the normal process.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., poured cold water on Pentagon threats to furlough nearly 100,000 civilian employees, suggesting the broader impact would not be as devastating as advertised.
“They claim 90,000 people would be furloughed. That is a very serious problem,” Sessions said. “But it’s one day. They’re not 90,000 laid off. They’re reducing their work from five days to four, which is unwise and not a smart way to manage at all, but...”
Pentagon officials, including the military’s top generals, and industry executives have warned that the cuts, which would start with a $46 billion reduction for the current fiscal year, could “hollow out” the force and leave the industrial base in tatters.
While more and more Republicans are embracing a kind of “it won’t be that bad” mantra, Levin, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, told reporters Tuesday evening that “The closer you get to it, the greater the likelihood is that it’ll be triggered. I’m still hopeful. I still believe there’s enough people who want to avoid sequestration that we can still avoid it.
“There’s lots of conversations on [the Senate] side going on, informally among colleagues, including myself … across the aisle,” he said, characterizing those talks this way: “What about this approach? What about that approach? There’s a lot of exploring going on.”
Still, even Levin acknowledged Congress is unlikely to pass legislation before Friday to again delay or permanently void the cuts. His hope is that those informal conversations “may produce an approach this week” that would lead to legislation before the sequester cuts actually begin to take effect March 27.
House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, has made clear any bill that would avert sequestration must originate in the Senate. The speaker says his chamber already has passed two such bills, which Senate Democratic Leader Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada still refuses to bring to the floor.
On Tuesday, Boehner said the House is waiting for the upper chamber to “get off their ass” and pass a bill.
Several sequester alternatives have been introduced by House members, but Boehner is refusing to bring them to a floor vote.
To that end, House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., on Wednesday will unveil a bill that would cut $320 billion in spending and eliminate the 2011 Budget Control Act’s mandate for the twin $500 billion cuts.
Nearly $170 billion of Smith’s proposed cuts would come from the Pentagon’s planned budget, with the remainder drawn from other parts of the federal discretionary budget, according to a statement released by his office. It also would suspend the federal debt limit until Feb. 1, 2017.
As Levin searches for an “approach” and Smith offers one, more and more GOP lawmakers are noting that some defense analysts claim that even with the full $500 billion cut, the Pentagon’s annual budget is slated to grow over the same 10-year span.
For instance, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a recent report, concluded that if sequestration happens the yearly defense budget would never dip below $500 billion and would grow modestly over its 10 years.
As the mood on Capitol Hill shifts toward the realization that sequestration by the weekend will be a reality, Corker and other spending cut-focused Republicans say the Pentagon budget is plenty big.
At one point, an animated Corker grabbed a reporter’s arm and uttered words that show a new era of U.S. defense spending is here.
“Only in Washington could we be so worried about a cut when the budget is actually growing.”