Hill talks numbers on defense cuts
By: Kate Brannen and Austin Wright
September 18, 2012 05:38 AM EDT
It all comes down to the number.
After months of dire talk about $1 trillion in cuts to the Pentagon over the next decade if the sequester takes effect, and all the high-minded talk of zero cuts from hawks, defense is going to take another hit regardless of who’s in the White House next year. As that realization begins to sink in, critical lawmakers are already starting to play an old-fashioned game of horse trading.
The first move: Name a figure.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has floated $587 billion in cuts. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) says he can swallow only $400 billion over 10 years. Sen. Kelly Ayotte doesn’t have a number yet, but the Republican from New Hampshire says she’s a part of the conversation.
Levin, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, was the first to start talking about a magic number. In June, he said he’d like to see an alternate deal that subtracted about $100 billion from the defense budget over the coming decade. That would be in addition to the $487 billion in reductions mandated by Congress last year but far less than the nearly $1 trillion the Department of Defense would’ve lost when that was combined with the sequester.
“I’m involved in discussions, and there’s others involved in discussions,” he told reporters.
The bottom line, though, is that he thinks Washington can avoid the worst.
“I predict there will not be a sequester,” Levin said. “One way or the other, since 90 percent of us don’t want it, it won’t happen. And my hope is that it won’t happen early enough to avoid any instability. What I am confident in is that it’s not going to happen because nobody around here wants it to happen except for some tea party folks.”
Almost all the discussion about an alternate deal has so far been confined to the Senate, which has not passed a defense authorization or an appropriation bill or any alternative to the automatic, across-the-board budget restrictions.
The House passed a bill earlier this year that would void the first year’s worth of sequestration by freezing the size of the federal workforce, and House lawmakers so far have stood by their work.
Graham, a member of the Armed Services Committee, gave another hint of where the discussions could stand. With Republican Mitt Romney in the White House, Graham said Congress should not only remove the threat of sequester but pare back some of last year’s $487 billion in first-round reductions.
“The first thing I want President Romney to do is to cut the budget responsibly and reject sequestration,” Graham said. “[Four hundred billion dollars] is all I can live with. … At the end of the day, I’m willing to do $400 billion over 10 [years].”
The difference between Levin’s and Graham’s positions highlights two potential problems for a Congress trying to approach an alternate deal to reduce defense spending — it not only splits Democrats and Republicans but could split Republican hawks and tea party conservatives like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, especially if November’s elections increase the number of fiscal conservatives in the Senate.
Paul and the influential conservative activist Grover Norquist have both said that Republicans shouldn’t treat each defense dollar as sacred, putting them at odds with pro-Pentagon hawks in their own party.
Defense advocates say the Pentagon has already paid its fair share in deficit reduction and next year’s Congress will have no choice but to focus on the biggest parts of the federal budget, including entitlements.
“Regardless of who wins, the big deal will have tax increases and spending cuts,” said one defense lobbyist, who asked not to be identified. “The ratio will just be different. With taxes playing a smaller role in a Republican plan, entitlement programs like Medicare will have to play a bigger one to protect defense.”
The defense lobbyist said it’s just too soon to tell what lawmakers might settle on as a potential alternate deal. “Any number being floated for additional defense cuts is complete conjecture,” he said. But the lobbyist did say he thought tea party lawmakers could go along with an alternative deal.
They’re content as long as money comes from somewhere else, he said. “They’re just concerned about cutting; they don’t care where it comes from.”
“It’s time to find the cuts somewhere else,” the lobbyist said. “The defense community should be more outspoken on entitlements.” That could include the politically sensitive “entitlements” included in the defense budget, including pay and benefits for troops — another reason a deal would have to come after the election and perhaps early in the tenure of a new Congress.