Defense budgeting has been even more convoluted and politicized than usual this year, mostly because of the looming $600 billion in mandatory defense cuts over ten years, known as the "trigger" or "sequestration." Republicans in Congress are pledging to stop the trigger, but there are different competing plans on how to do so.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told The Cable Tuesday in an interview that he is only days away from unveiling his proposal to roll back the required defense cuts that are mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, signed by President Barack Obama last August. The trigger, which also mandates $600 billion in cuts to Medicaid, was set into motion by the November failure of the congressional bipartisan "supercommittee" to strike a deal to reduce the federal budget by $1.2 trillion over the same period. The cuts are scheduled to go into effect in January 2013.
The only other legislation that has been introduced to avoid sequestration besides McCain's forthcoming proposal is the bill by House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA), which would delay sequestration for both defense and entitlements for one year by reducing the federal workforce through attrition - saving money by not allowing agencies to replace workers -- over the next decade. McKeon's plan would save the approximately $120 billion needed to delay the implementation of sequestration from January 2013 until January 2014.
McCain told The Cable that McKeon's proposal was "not good." McCain said his own plan will only protect the defense budget, not entitlements, from sequestration for one year. McCain said he is also working on another plan to roll back the $460 billion of defense cuts over ten years that the Obama administration announced last April and that are being incorporated into the administration's fiscal 2013 budget request, coming next month.
"We're going to work on a one-year plan for just defense, to start with," McCain said. "We're working on one proposal to avoid sequestration. We're working on another proposal specifically on the $460 billion that's going into effect this year."
Meanwhile, the GOP House leadership has yet to endorse either the McCain or the McKeon ideas. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) told reporters Monday that he had wanted to undo the entire 10 years of defense cuts, but would consider tackling the defense cuts for one year if that's the only possibility. Some on Capitol Hill see that as Cantor moving toward the McKeon bill.
"So if ten years is a problem, then let's go back and maybe we can find one year's worth of pay for that can at least stave off the sequester from being implemented Jan. 1, 2013, so that maybe we can have this election take place and be able to avoid it," Cantor said. "I just think the defense of this country is a priority. It is the priority."
Part of the confusion over what to do about the trigger relates to the statement Obama made on the day the supercommittee failed to reach a deal.
"I will veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts to domestic and defense spending. There will be no easy off-ramps on this one," Obama declared. "The only way these spending cuts will not take place is if Congress gets back to work to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion [over ten years]. They've still got a year to figure it out."
Many on Capitol Hill view that statement as an indication the administration won't accept efforts to bypass the trigger that only addresses the defense half of the equation.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) has his own idea on how to stave off the deep cuts to both defense and entitlements -- raise taxes.
"We should do something intelligent, which means establish priorities for any reductions but most importantly focus on revenues," Levin told The Cable today. "You've got to have revenues."
But isn't the GOP refusal to raise revenues (read = taxes) the whole reason the supercommittee failed in the first place, we asked Levin? Why does he think it's possible to do it now, in an election year?
"I think the Republicans are going to realize that the public wants fairness in the tax code, they want upper income folks to have their rates restored," Levin said.
While lawmakers decide how to stave off the sequestration cuts, the administration is battling internally over the budget release. Two sources told us that the Pentagon isn't happy about the White House's decision to delay the release of its fiscal 2013 budget request one week, from Feb. 6 to Feb. 13.
The Pentagon is going forward with its plan to preview selected parts of its budget to the public on Thursday, and lawmakers will get special briefings tonight.
Of course, all these discussions could be moot if Congress again fails to pass any appropriations bills in the run-up to the elections in November, as it did in 2010. And after the election, the entire situation could change again... especially if a Republican takes the White House.
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John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.