Pentagon Challenges Congress Not to ‘Pick At’ $525 Billion Military Budget

The Pentagon is challenging lawmakers not to pull apart its $525 billion proposed budget as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta went to Capitol Hill to make the case for reduced spending linked to a new military strategy.

“There is always a danger that some people would try to pick at one part, pick and choose something that is not convenient to them, but they have a big burden this year” because of spending cuts mandated by law, Ashton Carter, Panetta’s top deputy, said in an interview yesterday.

The proposed spending plan sent to Congress yesterday is $45 billion less than projected a year ago and the first installment in an 8.5 percent reduction by 2021. With $88.5 billion in war spending added in, the total would come to $613.9 billion, down $31.8 billion from the amount enacted by Congress for this year.

Republicans said the cuts run too deep, a theme they sounded when Panetta appeared today before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where Democrats are in the majority. He testifies tomorrow before the Republican-controlled House Armed Services panel.

“Unfortunately, this defense budget continues the administration’s habit of putting short-term political considerations over our long-term national security interests,” Senator John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate panel, said at its hearing today.

‘Struggling Armed Forces’

President Barack Obama’s priorities will reduce “resources for our struggling armed forces and redirect them to exploding domestic bureaucracies,” Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon of California, the Republican chairman of the House committee, said yesterday in a statement. “This budget reflects a true reduction, in real terms, of military spending while we have troops in combat.”

Congress passed a budget control act in August that mandates reductions in defense and domestic spending in an effort to reduce the federal deficit. In response, Obama directed the Defense Department to cut almost $490 billion from projected spending over a decade.

“We did a strategy review first and then derived the budget from the strategy,” Carter, the deputy defense secretary, said. “Somebody who wants to make a change needs to explain how that’s consistent with the strategy.”

Cuts by Category

The resulting budget would cut $259 billion through 2017 from previous plans through reductions of $94 billion in weapons procurement, $69 billion in military personnel, $60 billion in operations and maintenance, $19 billion in military construction and $17 billion in research and development.

Lawmakers critical of the budget “haven’t had to balance one part against the other,” Carter said. “We did that. What we did week after week after week is try to balance and round out that package, bounce it against the strategy.”

The Pentagon started the strategic review in mid-September, with an “unprecedented amount of involvement” by Obama, Carter said. Top Pentagon officials, including Panetta, Carter and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Obama six times from September through December to agree on the new military strategy and the budget linked to it.

Carter said he led about 34 two-hour-long meetings to work out details of the budget and the strategic review. Panetta ran the recommendations by each of the military services “along the way,” Carter said.

Pentagon Dinners

Panetta also gave Congress regular “status” reports, and he held several dinners at the Pentagon with congressional committee leaders, Carter said.

The budget debate may turn into a blame game over who is responsible for cutting the military and may lead to a stalemate that won’t be resolved until after the November election, according to Todd Harrison, a defense-budget analyst.

“There’s no easy answer or ready-made consensus on how to deal with the deficit,” Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington policy group, said yesterday in an interview. Lawmakers and the Obama administration are “going to be in a big fight, and this is going to be part of the campaign.”

The budget request marks the third consecutive year of slower growth in military spending since Panetta’s predecessor, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, told Congress in January 2009 that “the spigot of defense spending that opened on 9/11 is closing.”

Cuts by Categories

The Defense Department proposes reducing military personnel by 31,300, or 1.4 percent, from this year. Adding in cuts from this year, military personnel, including Reserve and National Guard units, would be reduced by about 124,000 through 2017.

Personnel levels would drop to 2,238,400 from 2,269,700 this year. The total would be 2,145,800 by 2017.

“It’s a fine line we are walking with the amount of cuts balancing the readiness, our modernization, our force structure and end strength,” General Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, said in an interview yesterday. He said it was crucial for the personnel reduction to be phased in gradually.

“Doing it over five years allows us to properly take care of our soldiers and our families,” Odierno said.

McKeon cited a comment by White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “the time for austerity is not today.”

“They’ll have a tough time explaining that to the 100,000 troops who will be forced from service under the president’s new budget plan,” McKeon said in his statement yesterday.

Automatic Cuts

McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham a Republican from South Carolina who is a member of the Senate armed services panel, in a statement yesterday criticized Obama for failing to propose ways to avoid even larger defense reductions.

Automatic cuts of as much as $500 billion, excluding interest savings, are scheduled to start taking effect in January.

The budget act enacted in August mandated the automatic cuts if a special congressional committee failed to find ways to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion. That supercommittee announced in November that it couldn’t settle on a plan, setting in motion the prospect of automatic cuts in defense.

“Neither the Defense Department nor the Obama administration have made any serious plans to avoid the additional defense cuts,” McCain and Graham said in their statement. “Every military and civilian defense official has said these draconian cuts represent a threat to our national security, and must not occur.”

‘Last-Minute Decisions’

McCain and Graham have called for reducing the civilian federal workforce to avert the deeper defense cuts.

If automatic cuts loomed, “we would have to start all over again,” Carter said. The Pentagon may start planning for that eventuality later this year “if it looks like the country, especially the Congress, is unwise enough” to permit that to happen.

Congress probably won’t deal with averting the automatic cuts until after the November elections, Harrison, the defense analyst, said.

“It’ll all come down to last-minute decisions in a lame- duck session of Congress,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at rtiron@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

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