Senate Armed Service Committee Grapples With Sequestration Reality

Automatic defense cuts could mean furlough days, lack of military preparedness.

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Top defense-minded lawmakers on Capitol Hill agree the more than $46 billion in automatic budget cuts scheduled to hit the Pentagon over the next seven months would have "devastating effects" on the military's ability to prepare for future and current conflicts.

"This whole thing is dumb," said independent Maine Sen. Angus King during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday. "This is a totally self-imposed disaster that we don't have to do."

But time is running out to either replace the nearly $500 billion in across-the-board cuts scheduled to go into effect over the next decade at the Pentagon, or punt the cuts to a later date.

"If I were [the president], I would have the helicopter running on lawn of the Capitol. ... I hope he takes the initiative," King said.

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Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told lawmakers that DOD would cut programs by roughly 8 percent across the board, resulting in less military preparedness for troops, delayed maintenance, layoffs, and civilian hiring freezes. The only category exempted is spending on military personnel.

"I began my career in a hollow Army. I don't want to end my career in a hollow Army," said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno.

All three branches of the military will see heavy cuts. Carter said maintenance on some aircraft and ships will have to be cancelled affecting 25 ships and more than 450 aircraft. And the Army will have to implement a 30 percent cut in base operating services.

In addition, most DOD civilian employees will have to take more than 20 furlough days if sequestration hits.

"This action will seriously harm our ability to do important work, which will, in turn, harm national security: civilians fix our ships and tanks and planes, staff our hospitals, handle contracting and financial management, and much more," Carter said.

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Carter—who was on the shortlist to replace Leon Panetta as Pentagon chief—said in a severe case, it's likely DOD would run out of money at the end of the year to pay its TRICARE bills, the healthcare program for the military.

Carter and the Joint Chiefs of Staff noted multiple times that they understand that DOD needs to make drastic cuts as the country faces a new fiscal reality, but added such deep and across-the-board cuts were not the solution.

"Sequestration is not a result of an economic emergency or a recession," Carter said. "It's purely the collateral damage of political gridlock."

The president has proposed Congress pass a small package of tax increases to raise revenues, and some spending cuts now, while pushing the sequester down the road by a few months to give Congress time to reach a sweeping deal to avoid automatic budget cuts. However, the president's call for additional revenues by eliminating certain tax deductions has been characterized as a non-starter by Republicans.

The president has yet to meet with his GOP foes on the hill to address a plan to replace the defense cuts or the best way to avoid them. A group of Republican lawmakers introduced legislation in the House and Senate last week that would postpone the first year of automatic cuts scheduled to hit in March.

"There are 16 days remaining until March 1," said Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe. "Sixteen days that will define our military strength for coming decades."

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