Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is working with senior Democrats on legislation to raise the debt ceiling and end a government shutdown, a bill that would grant Defense Department officials authority to decide what gets cut under sequestration. (Staff)
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WASHINGTON — Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is working with senior Democrats on legislation to raise the debt ceiling and end a government shutdown, a bill that would grant Defense Department officials authority to decide what gets cut under sequestration.
A senior Senate aide told Defense News Friday morning that the Senate’s emerging measure to end one Washington-made crisis and head off another would include “flexibility” that “would be government-wide and include DoD.”
The much-maligned sequestration cuts kicked in last March and were first set up by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) as part of an effort that trimmed the massive federal deficit by $1.2 trillion.
When congressional Democrats and Republicans, as well as the Democratic Obama White House, could not agree on a package of federal spending cuts, entitlement program reforms and new revenue-generators, they decided to set up sequestration. The BCA mandates twin $500 billion cuts to planned defense and domestic spending through 2021.
Pentagon officials and congressional hawks continue warning that across-the-board cuts to only nonexempt accounts is creating a “hollow military.” Defense officials, analysts and pro-military lawmakers say granting Pentagon officials the flexibility to implement the $50 billion annual reduction to planned spending would help ease that alleged “hollowing” effect.
Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe, R-Okla., has led the charge in the upper chamber to get Senate and House approval for sequester flexibility. Inhofe in March said Congress needs “to give the department the flexibility it needs to mitigate risk and operate within these severe budgetary constraints.”
“Although the amount of the cuts to the topline would remain the same, the department would have maneuvering room to decide where to take them,” Inhofe said at that time. “I talked to all of the service chiefs about this topic, and all of them agreed that this flexibility would provide significant relief and help to reduce risk.”
Collins and other senators soon joined the push.
Collins and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., for instance, pushed a plan earlier this year aimed at helping Pentagon and other federal officials “mitigate the harmful effects of sequestration by allowing agency heads more flexibility to set priorities in reducing their budgets.”
While previous flexibility efforts have failed, Collins’ new push could be different because legislation to end the government shutdown and avoid the first-ever US debt default is considered a must-pass bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Friday the chamber will vote on the measure Saturday. It proposes to raise the nation's borrowing limit through December 2014. That approach sets up yet another difference with an emerging House plan. House GOP leaders want to raise the debt ceiling only through Nov. 22.
Because the provision has been blessed by the Senate’s Democratic and GOP leaders, as well as top rank-and-file Democrats with whom Collins is working, it appears an easy sell in the upper chamber.
But the House could present a tougher road to passage.
House Republican leaders have begun talks with the White House about averting a default. But they are so far refusing to negotiate about ending the shutdown.
“You know, the president is fond of saying that no one gets everything they want in a negotiation and, frankly, I agree with that,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday.
“Nobody gets everything they want,” Boehner said. “So what we want to do is to offer the president today the ability to move a temporary increase in the debt ceiling in agreement to go to conference on the budget [resolution for 2014], and for his willingness to sit down and discuss with us a way forward to reopen the government and to start to deal with America’s pressing problems.”