By John T. Bennett
Defense News
WASHINGTON — After months of dire warnings and political theater, the first sequestration-era Pentagon budget plan has landed on Capitol Hill like a feather floating onto a soft mattress.Capitol Building

America’s top defense officials — echoed by their hawkish allies in Congress — warned the first $41 billion blow of the decade-spanning sequester would leave the military unable to perform key missions.

Pentagon leaders said they will cancel training for units in each armed service. They already have changed high-profile aircraft carrier deployment plans and plan to furlough hundreds of thousands of civilians. The officials are warning of delayed maintenance on aging combat platforms and that the military will be less ready to act when called upon.

But during hours of hearings about the Obama administration’s fiscal 2014 military spending request last week, sequestration largely was an afterthought.

Lawmakers from both parties asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey about Egypt, China, Syria and Afghanistan. A few House lawmakers put in plugs for weapon programs important to their districts, and several mentioned the elusive goal of defense acquisition reform.

Pro-military Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Republicans were most concerned about how Hagel intended to trim the Pentagon’s budget plan by the $52 billion needed to jam it under budget caps set in 2011. After warning about sequestration since August 2011, these hawkish members said almost nothing about turning off the remaining nine years of cuts, set to slash planned Pentagon spending by around $450 billion. In fact, during over six hours of testimony last week before SASC and the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, only one lawmaker spoke at length about the sequester and offered a plan to avoid it.

And even then, retiring SASC Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., talked only about replacing the 2014 batch of cuts with other deficit-reducing measures.

“I remain hopeful that we can develop such a bipartisan [grand bargain] plan,” Levin said April 17. “But absent a so-called grand bargain, surely we can devise a balanced deficit-reduction package for one year that avoids sequestration in … 2014. We simply cannot continue to ignore the effects of sequestration.”

The politically operative word in Levin’s statement is “balanced.”

Every sequestration-avoiding and “grand bargain” plan offered by congressional Democrats and the Obama administration has used that approach. And each has called for at least $120 billion in cuts to planned Pentagon budgets, which would be enacted over the next decade.

While a $120 billion cut is far less than the $450 billion that the law requires be cut over the next nine years, hawkish and interventionist Republican lawmakers oppose one more penny in defense cuts.

“We are on a path where an insatiable appetite to protect domestic spending and mandatory programs is consuming our defense budget and will soon result in a hollow military,” SASC ranking member Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said shortly after Levin floated his one-year plan.

“These short-sighted cuts to defense capabilities will not protect our national interests,” Inhofe said. “Rather, a weakened U.S. military will only embolden our adversaries and threaten the safety of our citizens both at home and abroad.”

What’s more, conservative Republicans in both chambers oppose the Democrats’ “balanced” approach as reflected in the president’s $3.8 trillion 2014 budget plan. The proposal calls for a mix of additional spending cuts, new revenues and entitlement program reforms.

Those GOP lawmakers want to achieve $1 trillion to $2 trillion in additional deficit reduction simply by slashing more federal spending. And that, some analysts and lawmakers say, could force larger Pentagon cuts that Obama is proposing if the two sides are to strike even a “mini-grand bargain.”

HASC Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said he is concerned there is a lack of urgency among House members to replace the sequester cuts with other deficit-paring measures.

SASC member Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told Defense News on April 17 that the number of bipartisan discussions in the Senate to do just that is “positive” and that the grand bargain likely will have to originate in the Senate.

One Democratic House member who spoke on condition of anonymity pinpointed what he sees as the key for any grand bargain mostly negotiated by President Barack Obama and Senate Republicans to also pass in the lower chamber: House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, would have to violate the so the “Hastert Rule,” the lawmaker said.

Under that unofficial GOP tactic, named after former GOP House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, leaders typically cancel or opt against scheduling votes on bills in the House that do not have a majority support from Republicans. If Boehner waived the “Hastert Rule,” most lawmakers and analysts say it would pass the House with mostly Democratic support.

But even in the Senate, any grand bargain that is “balanced” by Democrats’ definition — containing more tax hikes on the wealthiest Americans — faces an uphill climb.

SASC member and Budget Committee Ranking Member Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., panned the Obama administration’s 2014 federal budget plan for proposing new tax hikes.

The 2011 Budget Control Act “did not mandate a tax increase,” Sessions said April 17.

Levin’s subtle bow to — and Sessions’ blunt comment about — the complexities that are sequestration and fiscal politics underscores that the Pentagon and industry are bystanders watching an ideological fight over non-defense components: taxes, entitlement programs and other federal cuts.

Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Senate GOP defense aide now with the American Enterprise Institute, explained some Republican lawmakers’ frustrations with Obama’s opening grand bargain pitch.

“They see the president publicly coming to the table with proposals that have already been rejected,” Eaglen said. “Republicans, especially in leadership, know this budget offers a lot less than the president has proposed behind closed doors. They see the president taking things off the table.”

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