WASHINGTON — With Congress' supercommittee stymied, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Thursday of a "paper tiger" Pentagon if the panel fails to agree on a deficit-reduction plan and automatic spending cuts take effect as a result beginning in 2013.
The reductions would lead to a hollow force, he said at a Pentagon news conference, "a ship without sailors. It's a brigade without bullets. It's an air wing without enough trained pilots. ... An Army of barracks, buildings and bombs without enough trained soldiers able to accomplish the mission. It's a force that suffers low morale, poor readiness and is unable to keep up with potential adversaries."
The supercommittee has until Nov. 23 to agree on a deficit-reduction package of at least $1.2 trillion over a decade. Any amount less than that would be made up in across-the-board cuts divided evenly between defense and domestic programs. If the committee failed entirely, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office, the Pentagon would have about $450 billion less to spend over the next 10 years than current projections, leaving it with nearly $600 billion at its disposal in 2021.
The legislation that created the 12-member supercommittee earlier this year was crafted to make the threat of across-the-board cuts a powerful incentive for lawmakers to reach a compromise. But in recent days, following an exchange of offers Monday night at a meeting of a rump group of four Republicans and three Democrats, the chances of a deficit-reduction deal appear to have dimmed.
"As we get closer to the end it's harder to be optimistic. But I'm hopeful," Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, told reporters.
The committee's co-chairs met privately, and each said afterward — without evident optimism — that the negotiations were continuing.
"Nobody walked away, nobody," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., told reporters, disputing statements to the contrary from some Republicans. Asked whether the panel was stalled, she said, "I would absolutely not say we are stalled. I would not use that word at all."
Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Murray's Republican counterpart, went out of his way to compliment Democrats for negotiating in good faith, and also to praise President Barack Obama for identifying escalating health care costs as the principal force behind huge deficits.
"So we remain hopeful. This is not part of a blame game," he said.
Yet there were elements of that too.
After largely watching from the sidelines in recent weeks, senior administration officials unleashed an attack on Republicans, telling reporters that any failure in negotiations would result from a GOP unwillingness to raise taxes on the wealthy.
In particular, they criticized a Republican offer from earlier in the week, which included a first-ever offer to raise government revenues, as a tax cut in disguise for upper-income Americans.
In rebuttal, Republicans said their offer of $300 billion in increased revenue marked a significant concession designed to show Democrats they were serious about reaching a deal. Several added that the vociferous criticism from Democrats indicated the White House and key Democrats in Congress had decided not to permit an agreement in hopes the resulting gridlock would help Obama's re-election bid in a slow-growth and high-unemployment economy.
Given the political maneuvering, it was unclear whether future offers might be designed to complete an agreement or merely to gain political positioning for the eventual collapse of the negotiations.
Compounding the difficulties, according to officials in both parties, were internal divisions.
That was most evident during the day among Democrats, some of whom spoke on the Senate floor against a proposal to slow the growth in future cost-of-living increases under Social Security.
"I am not for having the seniors in America share the brunt of sacrifice with a proposal like this," Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said.
She said the proposal — once embraced by Democratic negotiators but since jettisoned — "is a cut that would increase over time and literally the longer you live, the more you're penalized."
The committee hasn't convened as a group for days, but the meetings continued nearly non-stop.
At one point Thursday, the three Senate Republican negotiators met with their party's leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. At the same time, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., one of three Senate Democrats on the supercommittee, was conferring with Majority Leader Harry Reid elsewhere on the second floor of the Capitol.
A short while later, a Democratic House member on the committee, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, walked into the suite of offices occupied by Sen. Jon Kyl, second-ranking GOP leader and also a member of the panel.
"There are a lot of discussions," Baucus told reporters as he walked past.
Kyl had a different take. "We had reached an impasse" earlier in the week, he said.
"Not much has happened since."
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Andrew Taylor and Erica Werner contributed to this report.