U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the media Friday at the White House in Washington, D.C., following an unsuccessful meeting about sequestration with U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner and congressional leaders. (Saul Loeb / AFP)
WASHINGTON — It was widely viewed as the end. But, in reality, March 1 was only the beginning.
U.S. lawmakers failed last week to avert one deadline for passing legislation that would have again delayed or permanently replaced cuts to planned Pentagon spending. But with that March 1 target missed, a desperate 26-day sprint toward a long-shot deal to undo the much-maligned sequestration cuts is underway.
The “fiscal cliff bill,” signed into law in early January by U.S. President Barack Obama, required him to “order” $500 billion in cuts to planned Pentagon spending over 10 years on March 1 unless he and Congress agreed to a package of deficit-reduction measures to delay or void them.
But that measure, negotiated primarily by two Washington veterans — Vice President Joseph Biden and Senate Republican Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. — included a sly provision that gives lawmakers one last shot at averting the sequestration cuts. The law built in 26 days between the president’s order and when many of the cuts actually would have to be implemented.
“The fiscal year 2013 spending reductions ... shall be evaluated and implemented on March 27,” the law states. The 26-day window inserted by Biden and McConnell essentially creates a sort of legislative overtime, and pro-defense lawmakers made clear last week they will keep trying to avoid the cuts.
Still, the Pentagon must enact many cuts during those 26 days.
Sources say some already are being implemented. But on Capitol Hill, with one deadline missed, the focus is on averting what will be left to trim between now and Sept. 30, as well as the remaining nine years of sequestration.
“There’s time to see other alternatives,” the Senate Armed Services Committee’s ranking member, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told Defense News on Feb. 28, before the Senate killed a Republican bill that would have softened the blow of the cuts and a Democratic bill that would have delayed the first year of them.
“We’ll come back and there may be some options we can look at,” Inhofe said. “But there’s still time, and I’ll keep working.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., last week revealed that Democrats and Republicans are talking behind the scenes about legislation that would avert the defense and domestic cuts.
Levin said he is hopeful those talks will produce “an approach” that can be used to build eventual legislation.
Inhofe and other Republicans told Defense News they have spoken to Levin and other Democrats. Each acknowledged, however, that another sequestration delay or a permanent solution may not happen.
Before and after voting down the Republican and Democratic bills, members of both parties pointed to the mechanism they are banking will force a compromise: their constituents.
“As the pain starts kicking in, people are going to be more amenable to making changes,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, another Oklahoma Republican.
Both Inhofe and Coburn crafted legislation last week to give Obama the authority to decide what gets cut; Inhofe’s was voted down and Coburn’s did not receive a vote.
“Our bill was very much supported by some Democrats,” Inhofe said. “I think there will be a lot more when they start getting weekend pressure at home. I think our bill will look more attractive at that time.”
Nearly a dozen Republican and Democratic senators told Defense News they believe House and Senate members cannot continue offering bills that originate within their own parties.
On the Senate side, an old goal was revived: Passing a “big deal” — a comprehensive fiscal measure that further pares the deficit, raises the federal borrowing limit and replaces the sequester — in coming months.
To get there might take “a couple weeks” or a “couple months,” Obama said during a March 1 press conference following a White House meeting with congressional leaders.
The two parties traded barbs that day, with Obama accusing Republicans of determining that keeping tax loopholes in place for their rich buddies was “more important than protecting our military.” House Republicans, meantime, accused Obama of wanting a plan that simply raises taxes and again slashes Pentagon spending.
On Feb. 28, Minority Whip Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said a big deal would have to exclude new revenue. But the chamber’s No. 3 Democrat, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, told Defense News such a fiscal deal would be “a great idea — but only if is has some revenues in it.”
The Cornyn-Schumer split reflects months of gridlock between the two parties over revenues and major domestic entitlement program reforms.
With renewed talk of tying the scheduled sequestration cuts to a big fiscal deal that has been elusive for two years -— and with the federal debt ceiling expiring — the Pentagon and U.S. defense sector are in many ways right back where they were in late December.
While it is unclear what a “big deal” might look like, it was clear late last week that both parties will at least shoot for one.
Some GOP members say they are open to considering new revenues, but only if Democrats put “real” entitlement reforms on the table in return.
“I’ve had a lot of other senators calling me today” since publicly stating he is open to raising revenue as part of a bigger deal, so long as it includes major entitlement reform, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Their message: “Let’s rethink the big deal.”
During a March 1 television interview, freshman Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, whose commonwealth of Virginia will be hit hard by the defense cuts, said talks between Republicans and Democrats about a fiscal bill that would turn off sequestration are “hot and heavy right now.”
In the House, Armed Services Committee Vice Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, told reporters March 1 that the panel’s Republicans intend to explore options and offer measures because “there are a lot of opportunities.” But the climate for hatching a bipartisan deal is much harder in the House — and House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, continues to demand the Senate act first on a sequester bill.
DoD Feels the Pain
Meantime, across the Potomac River, Pentagon officials maintain that the $46 billion cut to DoD’s budget between March and September, combined with a continuing resolution, which is funding the department at $11 billion less than its 2013 budget request, will be disastrous.
“Let me make it clear that this uncertainty puts at risk our ability to effectively fulfill all of our missions,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said during his first appearance in the Pentagon briefing room on March 1.
Still, Hagel said the U.S. military would remain a strong power.
“America … has the best fighting force, the most capable fighting force, the most powerful fighting force in the world,” he said. “The management of this institution, starting with the Joint Chiefs, are not going to allow this capacity to erode.”
The services have already taken action to reduce spending, including:
The Navy will gradually stand down at least four wings beginning in April and is already making adjustments for the number of ships at sea.
Air Force flying hours for training will be cut.
The Army will stop training for all units except those deploying to Afghanistan, which will affect nearly 80 percent of Army operational units.
Air Force units deployed to Afghanistan and ones that perform the nuclear deterrence missions will continue to receive funding, defense officials said.
Sequestration will affect 2,500 investment programs. Program managers have already begun talks with industry to determine the individual impact on specific efforts and are preparing to reduce the quantities of buys.
“You’ll [see] them begin to make adjustments, for example, in the number of weapons systems in a given category that are being purchased,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said during the same March 1 briefing at the Pentagon.
Later this month, DoD intends to issue “preliminary notifications to thousands of civilian employees who will be furloughed,” Hagel said.
Military bases have deferred non-emergency facilities maintenance, slowed training, laid off temporary employees and delayed new construction at bases.
While some, including the commander in chief himself at times, as well as military leaders and defense industry brass, have predicted the sequestration cuts would have dire consequences, Obama struck a different tone Friday.
“This is not going to be an apocalypse,” Obama said. “But it’s dumb.”