Inhofe Seeks Pentagon Flexibility on Sequestration Cuts

The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee wants to give the Pentagon more leeway in apportioning automatic budget cuts set to begin in two days.

Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma will introduce this week a measure that would let military service chiefs move around funds within the Pentagon’s budget this fiscal year, according to his spokeswoman, Donelle Harder.

Beginning March 1, the government faces $85 billion in across-the-board cuts over seven months -- half of it from defense -- unless President Barack Obama and Congress agree on an alternative.

“It buys time for a better fix” for the cuts, Harder said of Inhofe’s proposal. Lawmakers in his party are seeking an elusive consensus on how to deal with the reductions, known as sequestration.

Inhofe’s measure, to be co-sponsored by Senator Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, also would provide flexibility this fiscal year to domestic agencies facing cuts.

Inhofe’s proposal faces opposition from Republicans on the defense panel, including Senator John McCain of Arizona and Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. They back an alternative introduced by Ayotte that would delay sequestration for one year by requiring a 10 percent reduction in federal personnel through attrition and a pay freeze for lawmakers.

McCain, who in January was replaced by Inhofe as the top Republican on the Democratic-controlled Armed Services Committee, said this week that Inhofe’s approach infringes on Congress’s authority to make budget decisions, and comes just two months after Congress approved and President Barack Obama signed a fiscal 2013 defense authorization measure that differs from some of his priorities.

McCain’s Objection

“In the name of moving funds around, you can make policy decisions which would be directly counter to the National Defense Authorization Act,” McCain said in an interview on Feb. 25. “I’m not prepared to give over to the executive branch all the responsibilities of the legislative branch.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, also opposes giving the administration broad authority to move funds, and instead favors expanding the Pentagon’s authority to “reprogram” funds with advance notification and approval from Congress.

‘Disapproval’ Resolution

Harder said Inhofe’s approach would require the administration to implement cuts in a manner consistent with the defense authorization bill. Under his proposal, military service chiefs would recommend how to move funds for the remainder of this fiscal year equal to the amount of cuts required by sequestration.

The Obama administration would produce a broader government-wide plan that would be submitted to Congress for an up-or-down vote on a “resolution of disapproval” that, if it fails, would let Obama’s budget-cutting decisions take place. Details are still being worked on, Harder said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has said the Senate will consider two proposals concerning the across-the-board cuts, one from each political party. Over the next nine years, the automatic reductions would reach $1.2 trillion, with about half from defense programs.

To contact the reporters on this story: Laura Litvan in Washington at llitvan@bloomberg.net; Brian Faler in Washington at bfaler@bloomberg.net

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

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