Many in Washington believe this batch of defense cuts will stick because of the American public's insistence on deficit reduction. But another $500 billion in cuts over the same span are possible if Congress fails to approve a package this year with up to $1.5 trillion in federal cuts. Panetta used his stage Thursday to urge lawmakers to be "leaders" and understand the "responsibility" they possess to avoid that second batch of deeper cuts that the secretary said would "hollow out the force."
While Panetta was focused on avoiding the next round of cuts, hawkish congressional Republican leaders expressed outrage over the cuts in the 2013 spending plan.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) noted the $525 billion proposal is $47 billion smaller than the administration projected in its last spending plan for 2013. "Contrary to those who would assert that this budget still represents an increase in defense spending, clearly this budget is a real cut in military spending," McKeon said a statement issued minutes after Panetta and Dempsey left the Pentagon briefing room.
Notably, McKeon's statement was not directed at Panetta or Pentagon officials-but at President Barack Obama.
"The President has abandoned the defense structure that has protected America for two generations," McKeon said. "This move ignores a critical lesson in recent history: that while high technology and elite forces give America an edge, they cannot substitute for overwhelming ground forces when we are faced with unforeseen battlefields."
The veteran House Republican's sharp tone made clear an election-year fight is brewing over the Pentagon budget and Obama's vision for a lighter, smaller, more agile military.
"These cuts reflect President Obama's vision of an America that is weakened, not strengthened, by our men and women in uniform," McKeon said, promising "rigorous oversight" by his panel. "This is a vision at odds with the president's empty praise on Tuesday evening, and one I fundamentally disagree with. To be clear, the impacts of these cuts are far deeper than Congress envisioned in the Budget Control Act because of strategic choices the president has made."