The Pentagon could draw the short straw after Election Day, when Congress returns for a lame-duck session ripe for compromises with the White House on a number of spending and tax measures.
Proponents of robust defense spending are growing increasingly concerned what is being called "taxmaggeddon" in Washington, a term being bandied about the District for a period later this year when a slew of tax laws will expire. The Heritage Foundation has concluded if all those laws are allowed to run out, Americans' taxes could collectively rise by nearly $500 billion.
But the political fallout for both parties and the White House—even if President Obama already has been defeated—would be too great. That means Republicans and Democrats alike would go to great lengths to find federal spending cuts, and the Pentagon's nearly $600 billion annual budget would suddenly resemble a fatty slab of meat ripe for trimming.
At the same time, lawmakers will be trying stave off a rarely used budget process called sequestration, a process set to kick in Jan. 1 that would cut $1.2 trillion from both national defense and domestic programs.
As politicans scramble in November and December to pinpoint budget cuts, some Pentagon veterans and analysts say the annual defense budget already wears a sizable bull's-eye. That is largely because poll after poll finds the American people willing to shrink the defense budget.
"I worry defense will again become a less-important priority," Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute said during a forum in Washington. "It looks like a steep uphill climb to convince the American people to spend more on defense."
Retired Lt. Gen. David Barno agreed, saying defense will be a "relatively low priority" when lawmakers return to Washington in early November.
A new poll conducted by the University of Maryland and the Stimson Center suggests American voters' have an appetite for shrinking the annual Pentagon budget.
Respondents were given information about the size of the yearly defense budget in several ways. After digesting that data, in "three of the five cases a majority of respondents said that the size of the defense budget was more than they expected," according to a study accompanying the poll results. "When asked for their conclusion, a large majority favored cutting defense."
Under a debt-paring bill passed last summer, the Pentagon already is enacting a $350 billion cut to planned spending over the next 10 years. Senior members of both parties on Capitol Hill along with White House officials say they want to avoid the automatic cuts, which would reduce national defense spending by another $500 billion over the same span.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said he has yet to instruct the armed services to begin planning for the second round of cuts. Michele Flournoy, who until three months ago was the No. 3 civilian official at the Pentagon, said during the forum that she believes "people in the Congress and the White House [already] should be doing this planning."
"Both political parties want to sustain American military preeminence," Barno said during the forum in Washington. And while "most" of the American people do, too, the former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan says "a debate among the American people" on that very issue has begun.
Matthew Leatherman, a Stimson Center analyst who helped with the new poll and study, says "the message to Washington is clear: The Pentagon is on the right path, but policymakers can best represent the American people by leading the way to greater savings."
"Many Pentagon and congressional leaders oppose cuts beyond $350 billion, but this survey suggests that Americans believe policymakers still are moving too tentatively," says Leatherman. "Three-quarters of those surveyed [would] cut spending further. … That includes scaling back in Afghanistan and reducing the ground force, while sparing special operations forces from the toughest cuts."
Many Washington insiders of all political stripes agree that progress on the tax laws, avoiding the automatic cuts, or even raising the debt ceiling is unlikely until after Election Day.
On further defense cuts, conservative Republicans are holding firm that slashing domestic entitlement programs should happen in order to stave off military cuts. Democrats are pushing for, as described by Flournoy, "a balanced" package of "tax reforms, spending cuts and things that drive U.S. competitiveness."
The former Pentagon policy chief urged Congress to, at the least, approve a measure that "de-triggers sequestration," and find other ways to achieve the $1.2 trillion in cuts that would be achieved through the automatic reductions.
Amid the uncertainty, one thing is crystal clear, Flournoy mused: "A lot of productive work will come between the election and the time when sequestration would kick in. I think a lot of minds will become very, very focused."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report via the DOTMIL blog. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.