WASHINGTON — An influential Senate Democrat on Wednesday said Congress should pass a plan that would void pending cuts to the Pentagon’s 2014 budget if Washington fails this year to craft a “grand bargain” fiscal deal.
The 2011 Budget Control Act mandated that Congress and President Barack Obama would need to agree on a $1.2 trillion package of deficit-cutting measures or twin $500 billion defense and domestic cuts would be triggered. They didn’t, and the first year of the 10-year-spanning cuts is now being implemented.
Most Republican and Democratic senators say they would prefer to pass the kind of sweeping “grand bargain” fiscal deal needed to permanently replace the sequestration cuts. The prospects for that kind of package passing are slimmer in the House, where conservative deficit hawks believe the sequester cuts are better than no cuts for a federal government they believe spends vastly too much money.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., subtly acknowledged those political realities at the onset of a hearing Wednesday morning. And, in his signature politically pragmatic style, Levin offered a temporary fix.
“I remain hopeful that we can develop such a bipartisan [grand bargain] plan,” Levin said. “But absent a so-called grand bargain, surely we can devise a balanced deficit-reduction package for one year that avoids sequestration in ... 2014. We simply cannot continue to ignore the effects of sequestration.”
Those effects, Pentagon brass say, include canceled training for units in each armed service, changes in aircraft carrier deployments, expected furloughs of civilian employees, and delayed maintenance on aging combat platforms, among other moves. Officials also warn the military will be less ready to act when called upon.
The politically operative word in Levin’s statement is “balanced.”
Every sequestration-avoiding and “grand bargain” plan offered by congressional Democrats and the Obama administration has used that approach. And each has called for at least $120 billion in cuts to planned Pentagon budgets, which would be enacted over the next decade.
While a $120 billion cut is far less than the $450 billion that current law requires be cut over the next nine years, hawkish and interventionist Republican lawmakers oppose one more penny in defense cuts.
“We are on a path where an insatiable appetite to protect domestic spending and mandatory programs is consuming our defense budget and will soon result in a hollow military,” SASC ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla., said shortly after Levin floated his one-year plan.
“These short-sighted cuts to defense capabilities will not protect our national interests,” Inhofe said. “Rather, a weakened U.S. military will only embolden our adversaries and threaten the safety of our citizens both at home and abroad.”
What’s more, conservative Republicans in both chambers oppose the Democrats’ “balanced” approach, which, as reflected in the president’s $3.8 trillion 2014 budget plan, calls for a mix of additional spending cuts, new revenues and entitlement program reforms.
Those GOP lawmakers want to achieve $1 trillion-$2 trillion in additional deficit reduction simply by slashing more federal spending. And that, some analysts and lawmakers say, could force larger Pentagon cuts that Obama is proposing if the two sides are to strike even a “mini-grand bargain.”