The Cable

GOP has different plans to avoid defense 'trigger'

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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The Cable

Kerry: Syria getting very close to civil war

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable that Syria is "pretty close" to a civil war, but declined to say that the United States should start providing material support to the opposition.

"It certainly has the feel of [a civil war]," said Kerry, who just returned from an 11-day trip around the Middle East. He said that the escalating violence in Syria was the No. 1 topic of discussion in his meetings with regional officials, but wouldn't commit to advocating any specific U.S. actions, such as directly aiding the opposition or establishing humanitarian safe zones near the border.

"I think we've got to work with a lot allies," he said. "The Arab League and the Gulf [Cooperation] Council are taking significant initiatives with respect to it and I think we really need to consult with them and see step by step what's appropriate."

Kerry's comments differed from Middle East subcommittee chairman Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), who told The Cable today that the Arab League isn't doing all it can and the United States should do more.

"I would hope the Arab League can be more constructive and more effective than they have been to date," Casey said. "I think it was a debacle sending in folks that weren't able to convey a sense of legitimacy or competence in terms of putting a team on the ground to monitor."

"[W]e need to be more pointed in our effort to create more pressure," Casey said, adding that he was in favor of direct aid to the opposition, although not necessarily a no-fly zone. "[A no-fly zone] worked in Libya, but the challenges in each country are different," he said.

The State Department is now focused on using the Arab League monitoring mission's report, which was delivered over the weekend, as the centerpiece of a new push at the U.N. Security Council. Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman is in Moscow now to gauge Russian support for such action. Russia recently sold more weapons to Syria and is expected to oppose any U.N. action that would be seen as authorizing stronger measures against the Syrian regime.

Feltman warned the Russians of the danger of supplying more arms to the Syrian government, but has been unable thus far to convince Moscow that tougher actions against the Syrian regime are needed. "You know, I wouldn't say that there was a major breakthrough," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday about Feltman's discussions with Russian officials.

The Arab League extended  the monitoring mission for another month this week, and called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to transfer power to his deputy and begin a national dialogue with opposition groups. Assad has already rejected that proposal, leading Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf countries to withdraw their monitors, leaving the mission less functional and with fewer resources, said Nuland.

"[O]ur understanding is that the GCC countries were not interested in continuing if in fact the entirety of the Arab League proposal was not going to be accepted," she said. "Clearly there's going to be a big hole in this operation now, and it's a direct result of the Assad regime's rejection of the larger proposal for a national dialogue."

Kerry also explained to The Cable why he returned to Washington with two black eyes and a swollen nose. He said he did a face-plant while playing hockey with some friends in Massachusetts.

"I was playing hockey and I met the ice ... crunch!" Kerry said. "I was trying to avoid a guy, I tried to leap over him ... it seemed like the nice thing to do."

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