The Cable

Top Senate Dem: No sequestration deal without new taxes

Senate Democrats won't agree to any deal to avoid $1.2 trillion on impending defense and entitlement cuts without new taxes, according to Senate leadership member and former "supercommittee" chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA).

The cuts, mandated by the law Congress passed last year to avoid a debt-ceiling crisis, would automatically cut $600 billion each from defense spending and entitlement spending over the next 10 years, when compared with current projections. Republicans have offered various plans to avoid the cuts, but none of them come with new revenues, so none of them will be accepted by Democrats, Murray said.

"As you all remember, sequestration was included in the bipartisan Budget Control Act to give both sides an incentive to compromise," Murray said in a Monday speech at the Brookings Institution. "But Republicans weren't willing to offer any concessions to get to a deal - and now they want to have their cake and eat it too. They all want the deficit reduction, but without any of the bipartisan compromise or shared sacrifice."

Murray said that Democrats insisted on new revenues during the debt-ceiling debate and also during the supercommittee negotiations -- and they are not going to alter that stance to avoid the sequestration cuts, which would automatically go into effect in January if Congress does not act.

"So anyone who tells you sequestration is going to simply disappear because both sides want to avoid it is either fooling themselves or trying to fool you," she said. "It is going to have to be replaced, and that replacement is going to have to be balanced."

Murray also said that Democrats would never agreed to avoid the defense cuts unless the entitlement cuts were also avoided. She is working with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) on legislation that would require an analysis of the impact of all the cuts. But if the GOP doesn't play ball, Murray indicated that Democrats would let the cuts go through and then argue that Republicans were to blame.

"I will not agree to a deal that throws middle-class families under the bus and forces them to bear this burden alone," she said. "Unless Republicans end their commitment to protecting the rich above all else, our country is going to have to face the consequences of Republican intransigence."

On the GOP side, the fight against the sequestration cuts is being led by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) and freshman Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH).

Last week, Ayotte -- who is being groomed as a GOP leader on foreign policy -- criticized the administration for refusing to prepare for the cuts.

"As commander in chief, President Obama can't ‘lead from behind' on sequestration," Ayotte said in a  July 9 statement. "Our national security is at stake, along with a million jobs in the nation's defense industrial base. President Obama is ignoring dire warnings from his own Defense Secretary and industry leaders to avoid these devastating cuts, refusing to address one of the foremost security threats to our nation. It's a fundamental failure of leadership that I find deeply troubling."

In May, Obama surrogate and former top defense official Michèle Flournoy predicted that there would be no progress on avoiding the sequestration cuts until the lame-duck session of Congress, after voters have gone to the polls in November.

"The onus is really on Congress to exercise the discipline, the political courage, the pragmatism to reach a budget deal that avoids sequestration, which would impose draconian cuts in a mindless way that would have severe and negative impacts for our national security," she said.

Allison Good contributed reporting.

The Cable

Top senators can't explain Romney's Afghanistan policy

Republican candidate Mitt Romney's policy on the future of U.S.-led war in Afghanistan war is unclear and confusing, complicating attempts to either support or criticize it during the campaign, according to leading senators from both parties.

On Romney's website, the campaign criticizes President Barack Obama for announcing a "timetable" for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and accuses the administration of placing politics over the advice of military commanders by withdrawing 30,000 surge troops by September.

"Gov. Romney supports the 2014 timetable as a realistic timetable and a residual force post-2014. But he would not have announced that timetable publicly, as President Obama did, as doing so encourages the Taliban to wait us out and our allies to hedge their bets," a Romney campaign spokesperson told The Cable.

But when it comes to what a President Romney would do differently from Obama on Afghanistan if and when he became president, the details remain sketchy.

"Mitt Romney will never make national-security decisions based upon electoral politics," the campaign website reads. "Upon taking office, he will review our transition to the Afghan military by holding discussions with our commanders in the field. He will order a full interagency assessment of our military and assistance presence in Afghanistan to determine the level required to secure our gains and to train Afghan forces to the point where they can protect the sovereignty of Afghanistan from the tyranny of the Taliban. Withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan under a Romney administration will be based on conditions on the ground as assessed by our military commanders."

Last week, The Cable asked several senior senators from both parties whether they supported Romney's plan for Afghanistan. None was able to articulate exactly what that policy is or what the U.S. force in Afghanistan might look like if Romney is elected.

"What is it?" said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a Romney supporter and senior member of the Armed Services Committee. "I think [Romney's policy is] ‘listen to the commanders' and if it's that, that's OK with me."

Graham agreed with Romney's criticism of Obama's plan to withdraw the 30,000 surge troops by September, which means the bulk of them will not be around for this summer's fighting season. But overall, Graham supports the Obama plan to adhere to a 2014 deadline for handing over control to the Afghans while keeping a significant U.S. troop presence there afterwards.

"Generally speaking, the only problem I have with President Obama is the acceleration of the withdrawal of the surge forces," Graham said.

Graham wants Romney to publicly endorse a continued U.S. force presence in Afghanistan after the full handover of power in 2014. Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in May signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement that would extend the presence of U.S. troops another 10 years, an agreement Graham helped to negotiate.

"I hope Romney will tell the American people that we are going to have a follow-on force in Afghanistan." Graham said. "It's in our interest to do it."

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) said he wasn't sure exactly what Romney's Afghanistan policy entailed and didn't want to get into it.

"You would have to tell me what exactly you mean by ‘his policy.' That's a long discussion that I don't want to get into," Kyl told The Cable.

Part of the challenge for the Romney team is that Republican voters are split on Afghanistan, with 48 percent supporting withdrawing all troops as soon as possible  and nearly as many, 45 percent, supporting leaving a follow-on force there until the country is stabilized. The electorate as a whole favors bringing the troops home quickly (60 percent) over keeping troops there longer (32 percent).

"These numbers point to Romney's political bind," wrote James Lindsey, vice president of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an online commentary. "He has talked tough on Afghanistan ever since last June, when Republican national security conservatives blasted him for what they saw as his insufficient commitment to the mission there. Romney responded with much tougher rhetoric even though the policies he favors look a lot like Obama's."

For the Obama team and for Senate Democrats, Romney's apparent unwillingness to get more specific on Afghanistan represents a good opportunity to call into question his foreign-policy bona fides and present Obama as tougher on national security because he has committed to another decade of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

"Without getting into the campaign rhetoric of what [Romney]'s asserting, I think you've got 50 nations in NATO that agree to a plan in Afghanistan," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on ABC's This Week in May. "It's the Lisbon agreement, an agreement that, you know, others, President Bush, President Obama, everyone has agreed is the direction that we go in Afghanistan."

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) told The Cable that the issue is just one more example of the Romney campaign avoiding tackling tough issues.

"I sure don't know what [Romney's Afghanistan policy] is," Levin said. "From what I've read, I can't fathom his position on Afghanistan any more than I can fathom his position on a whole bunch of other things."

"I don't know that he's flip-flopped on Afghanistan. I don't know that he's ever taken a clear position. It's not like some of the other positions he's so consistently flip-flopped on," Levin said. "Here, I don't know what the flip is or the flop."