Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., says he believes US lawmakers could pass a sequestration-replacement bill late this year. (Jim Watson / AFP)
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WASHINGTON — One key Democratic US senator believes lawmakers soon will find a way to get rid of across-the-board defense cuts so loathed by many on the political right and left.
The Pentagon and US defense industry have been dealing with sequestration cuts to all non-exempt accounts for several years. So far, the best Congress has been able to do was a budget deal that provided some relief in the level of cuts for 2014 and 2015.
But the ever-optimistic Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., believes Republicans and Democrats are poised to do something substantial on sequestration.
Levin told reporters before Congress left for its August-long recess that “there has to be a coming together” on an alternative to the deficit-reducing defense and domestic sequestration cuts.
He said there have been some talks behind the scenes on an issue he has been pushing: revamping the tax code to close some corporate loopholes, and using the subsequent federal revenues to void sequestration.
Levin will retire from the Senate when this session ends later this year.
Asked by CongressWatch if he thinks either he or President Barack Obama will still be in office when that “coming together” moment occurs, the 34-year senate veteran suggested a sequestration-replacement bill could pass late this year.
“I think it’s going to happen long before Obama leaves because it has to happen,” Levin replied. “I’m hoping it will happen during September or during the lame-duck” session in November and December.
The SASC chairman said he senses that the “forces that [should] compel an alternative to sequestration are so strong, and the impacts of sequestration are so great, that something has to happen.”
With a significantly truncated legislative calendar due to November’s midterm elections, however, both chambers would have to move fast on such a bill.
One thing that GOP senators and sources say might bring a sequestration-addressing bill is a flip of control in the upper chamber.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., believes “big things” would occur if his party wins control of the Senate. With the Grand Old Party controlling both chambers — even with a likely tiny majority in the Senate — Corker sees an opening for lawmakers and the Obama White House to attempt another sequester-killing fiscal deal.
“If we were fortunate to ... be in the majority, I think that’s when big things happen for our country because both sides own the solution,” Corker said prior to the start of Congress’ August break. “I really hold out hope that if we win the majority ... we’ll have the opportunity and the environment will be right for a big solution to occur.”
Corker and other Republicans say if their party controls both chambers next year, it should force Democrats and Obama to adhere to more GOP demands in negotiations over legislation.
But one former Senate defense aide wrote of that thinking: “Fat chance.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., “taking a lead from [Robert] Byrd, Bob Dole and others before him, tried to micro-manage the process, especially to protect Dems from votes that made them nervous,” said Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information and the Project on Government Oversight. “A Republican-led Senate will be no different unless the majority leader permits any/all amendments and the minority learns to respect that privilege.”
And longtime federal budget watcher Stan Collender says the best Congress will do this year on spending bills is to pass two massive governmentwide measures.
“Congress will return to Washington after Labor Day with little-to-no chance of enacting more than 1 or 2 (and even that’s a stretch) of the 12 regular 2015 appropriations by the time the fiscal year begins on October 1,”" Collender wrote this week in his latest Forbes.com column. “That means it’s not just an overwhelming likelihood that a continuing resolution will be needed to keep federal agencies operating and prevent the government from shutting down.” ■