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Hope Fades for 'Grand Bargain' to Avoid Sequester

Jun. 10, 2013 - 05:08PM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
President Obama Makes Statement On Affordable Care
President Barack Obama (Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — Pro-military House Republicans and Barack Obama, the Democratic president with whom they so often are at odds, have something in common after all. Neither side appears interested in voiding deep cuts to planned Pentagon spending in fiscal 2014.

Obama in April rolled out a spending plan that included a comprehensive proposal to replace the remaining nine years of cuts to defense and domestic spending. But it was a measure that not one Republican could support. And since — save breaking bread with some Republicans and golfing with others — the second-term commander in chief has done little to turn off the defense cuts.

For that, House Republicans have accused him of failing his duties as the head of the US military by dismantling the American arsenal. The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) even has a page on its website titled “Obama’s Strained View Of National Security.”

But House Republicans’ own 2014 budget resolution, along with their Pentagon appropriations and authorization measures, simply ignores the second batch of the much-maligned — but so far unresolved —– defense sequester cuts.

The HASC, in the wee hours of June 6, approved a bill that would authorize a Pentagon budget for 2014 that passes the $552.1 billion mark. The House Appropriations defense subcommittee is proposing a $512.5 billion base Pentagon budget, smaller than Obama’s $526.6 billion DoD request. All three pretend the next sequester cut doesn’t exist — even though it does.

The Pentagon also opted against planning ahead for the 2013 sequester cut, but Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said last week that the Defense Department will examine how to adjust its 2014 budget proposal if sequestration spending caps remain in place beyond this fiscal year.

A senior HASC aide acknowledged last week that, by budgeting to a level so much above sequester levels, lawmakers are operating in a “fantasy world.” Like Obama, lawmakers are presenting Pentagon budget plans that could only be implemented after Congress and the president strike a sequester-canceling “grand bargain” fiscal deal this summer. But there’s no deal in sight.

Former officials tell Defense News this “fantasy world” mindset, and a political objective held by Republicans and Democrats to “screw” the other party, means another sequester cut starting Oct. 1 is likely.

“Sequester is like a [base-closure round] for the defense budget,” said former Clinton White House defense budget official Gordon Adams. “Everyone gets to blame everyone else. The Republicans can blame the White House. And the White House can blame the Republicans.

“No one is legislating to sequester spending levels. We’re moving toward another continuing resolution and appropriations bills that can’t be conferenced, then a debt-ceiling fight, then another sequester,” said Adams, now with the Stimson Center. “Didn’t we just go to this movie? It’s beginning to look like ‘Groundhog Day.’ ”

'Blame Goes Both Ways'

Winslow Wheeler, a former senior Senate aide now with the Project on Government Oversight, was more blunt about what’s holding up the kind of “grand bargain” fiscal deal that would lessen or replace the remaining nearly $1 trillion in cuts to planned defense and domestic spending.

“The Republicans are focused on screwing the president,” Wheeler said. “And Obama is focused on screwing them right back.

“The blame goes both ways — just like the finger-pointing on sequestration,” Wheeler said. “Congress is focused on their next primary and re-election campaign. They’re scared about the political consequences of moving first on a ‘grand bargain’ deal.”

HASC leaders kicked off a lengthy markup of the 2014 Pentagon policy bill by again stating their opposition to the sequestration cuts to planned military spending, which if left untouched amount to $50 billion in cuts every year for the next nine years.

The panel’s bill “points out the necessity of removing sequestration,” said ranking member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. “For some time now, this committee has highlighted the damaging effects of sequestration, and we have witnessed over the last year the damaging impact it has on our military.

“Sequestration is no longer a hypothetical — we have seen the serious damage that it causes,” Smith said. “If Congress does not act, the situation is only going to get worse and the work we have done to support our troops through this bill will not be fully realized.”

'All About Politics'

With no grand bargain in sight, all of official Washington is to blame, Wheeler said.

“I can’t find any evidence that anyone on the Hill is talking about this,” Wheeler said. “Not even any side conversations.”

Key senators who would be central to securing a grand bargain have told Defense News a deal needs to be in place by this fall.

That list includes Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who calls the pursuit of the deal “fragile.” It also includes Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has met several times with the president. He said the deal must be in place this fall or it will fall victim to the 2014 elections. Another is Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who recently golfed with Obama and who recently told Defense News “it’s not defined how [a grand bargain] is going to occur.”

But don’t just blame lawmakers, the former officials say.

“This is a multicameral problem,” Wheeler said. “Congress is so prominent to most people with the ‘Just vote for me’ mindset. But Obama is part of the problem too — he pretends to have talks, then gives partisan speeches.”

Wheeler also pinned some blame on the Pentagon for opting against planning for the 2013 sequester round. While DoD officials are warning about the training and maintenance cuts they have enacted so far, “they chose this path,” he added. “They could have avoided this.”

Adams agrees that politics are making another sequester more likely. “If there’s no big deal by the fall, then we get into the 2014 election cycle. Come that time, it will be all about politics.”

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