Panetta to Congress: Don't mess with my budget

Friday - 5/11/2012, 5:20am EDT

Jared Serbu, reporter, Federal News Radio

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued a firm rebuke Thursday after the House Armed Services Committee approved a defense authorization bill that revitalized several programs worth hundreds of millions of dollars that the Pentagon wants to cancel.

He also pushed back against several other measures lawmakers blocked that the Defense Department believes are needed in order to meet its congressionally-mandated deficit reduction goals.

Panetta warned lawmakers that tinkering with DoD's budget plan is a recipe for stalemate with the Senate and will have negative consequences for national security.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

"The Department of Defense is not going to support additional funds that come at the expense of critical national security priorities," he said. "If members of Congress try to restore their favorite programs without regard to an overall strategy, the cuts will have to come from areas that impact overall readiness. There's no free lunch here."

The remarks at a Pentagon news conference came hours after the House panel approved its version of the 2013 Defense authorization bill. The panel's chairman, Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), has been extremely critical of DoD's plan to reduce spending by $487 billion over the next 10 years despite having voted in favor of the 2011 Budget Control Act that mandated the spending reductions.

Every extra dollar must have an offset

Given the parameters of the deficit-cutting legislation lawmakers passed last year, the military must cut $487 billion from national security programs one way or another, Panetta argued.

"Every dollar that is added by Congress will have to be offset somewhere. And if for some reason they don't want to comply with the Budget Control Act, they'd certainly be adding to the deficit, which certainly puts our national security even further at risk," he said.

Overall, the House bill would authorize $3 billion more for national defense programs in DoD and other agencies than the administration's budget proposed. Among other changes, the House ordered a $5 billion East Coast missile defense project that military leaders said isn't needed given current missile threats, restored funding to the Global Hawk block 30 drone program that the Air Force wants to cancel, rejected a Navy plan to slow down submarine procurement and retire several surface cruisers, and ordered more tanks from a production line the Army has proposed closing for the past two years.

Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the weapons system cutbacks were part of a carefully balanced rethink of DoD's strategy and capabilities that the Pentagon has been working on since last year.

"[We made] a comprehensive and carefully devised set of choices that reflect the right mix among force structure, modernization, readiness and pay and benefits," Dempsey said. "Before giving us weapons we don't need or giving up on reforms that we do need, I'd only ask that we ask whether that's the right choice, not just for our armed forces but for our nation."

In addition to protecting weapons systems, the House also rejected a couple of cost-cutting measures the Pentagon said it needs to implement in order to meet its budget cutting targets, including health care fee increases for military retirees and the two additional base realignment and closure rounds DoD said it needs to rationalize its infrastructure.

Although he's holding fast to the budget cuts DoD's already proposed, Panetta also is sticking by his position that it would be a "disaster" for the military if the federal budget is subjected to the further round of automatic cuts that would be triggered if Congress doesn't agree on a deficit cutting plan by the end of the year.

Fix sequestration sooner than later

In testimony earlier Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the second-ranking military officers from all four services said Congress should settle the sequestration issue immediately rather than delaying the decision until a lame duck session following the presidential election.

"We've not done any planning for this, but the back-of-the envelope calculations are such that it would mean the loss of another 100,000 troops," said Gen. Lloyd Austin, the Army's vice chief of staff.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, said sequestration at the last minute would result in the immediate firings of tens of thousands of marines.

"At that number, we'd be breaking contracts," he said. "We'd be taking people who've been in harm's way in Afghanistan and who thought they had a commitment from us and sending them on their way. Our reward for them would be to simply send them home and shake their hand."

The full House voted Thursday on a bill that would eliminate sequestration and find deficit control savings in food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid and federal employee benefits instead, while preserving DoD's budget.

But Panetta said the House position on sequestration would make sequestration more likely, not less, because it would provoke a fight with the Senate.

"I'm grateful to the House for recognizing the importance of stopping sequestration. But by taking these funds from the poor, the middle class and other vulnerable parts of our constituencies, the guaranteed result is going to be gridlock," he said. "Again, the key is to work together."

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