What next? Lawmakers look to undo the supercommittee back-up plan
WASHINGTON — Don't look for the Pentagon to shut down one side of its famous five-sided building. Don't expect the Education Department to pull back its grants just yet.
With the collapse of the deficit-cutting supercommittee, Congress' emergency backup budget-cutting plan now is supposed to take over — automatic, across-the-board spending reductions of roughly $1 trillion from military as well as domestic government programs.
But the big federal deficit reductions that are to be triggered by Monday's supercommittee collapse wouldn't kick in until January 2013. And that allows plenty of time for lawmakers to try to rework the cuts or hope that a new post-election cast of characters — possibly a different president — will reverse them.
Congress' defense hawks led the charge Monday, arguing that the debt accord reached by President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans last summer already inflicted enough damage on the military budget. That agreement set in motion some $450 billion in cuts to future Pentagon accounts over the next decade.
The supercommittee's failure to produce a deficit-cutting plan of at least $1.2 trillion after two months of work is supposed to activate the further, automatic cuts, half from domestic programs, half from defense. Combined with the current reductions, the Pentagon would be looking at nearly $1 trillion in cuts to projected spending over 10 years.
Obama declared he would veto any effort to undo the automatic cuts. But there are sure to be efforts in that direction.
"Our military has already contributed nearly half a trillion to deficit reduction. Those who have given us so much have nothing more to give," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., in promising to introduce legislation to prevent the cuts.
Sens. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the panel, said they would "pursue all options" to avoid deeper defense cuts.
The congressional rank and file may be determined to spare defense and undo the automatic cuts, but there's hardly unanimity. Deficit-cutting tea partyers within the GOP side with liberal Democrats in signaling they're ready to allow military reductions. In addition, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said they would abide by the consequences of the deficit-fighting law — and they control what legislation moves forward.
Freshman Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a tea party favorite, even questioned the legitimacy of the outcry over the military reductions, from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta contending the cuts would be devastating to McKeon's warning that they would "cripple our ability to properly train and equip our force, significantly degrading military readiness."
"I think we need to be honest about it," Paul said in an interview on CNN Sunday. "The interesting thing is there will be no cuts in military spending. This may surprise some people, but there will be no cuts in military spending because we're only cutting proposed increases. If we do nothing, military spending goes up 23 percent over 10 years. If we sequester the money, it will still go up 16 percent. So spending is still rising under any of these plans."
According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the planned Pentagon budget for 2021 would be some $700 billion, an increase over the current level of about $520 billion. The cuts already in the works plus the automatic reductions would trim the projected amount by about $110 billion.
"It's not a decrease in the military budget. It's reducing the increase," said John Isaacs, executive director of Council for a Livable World and Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
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