What next? Lawmakers look to undo the supercommittee back-up plan
But McCain and Graham have been working on legislation that would undo the automatic defense reductions and instead impose a 5 percent across-the-board reduction in government spending combined with a 10 percent cut in pay for members of Congress.
The Senate resumes work next week on a massive defense bill, a possible candidate for any effort to rework or undo the cuts.
"It's a near certainty they will try to get out from under it," Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group advocating fiscal discipline, said of the automatic cuts. "It's equally certain they will damage their credibility if they do so."
The next year-plus plays out in a politically charged atmosphere, with Obama's Republican presidential rivals Mitt Romney and Rick Perry already criticizing the commander in chief for the proposed cuts in defense.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said it was imperative for Obama "to ensure that the defense cuts he insisted upon do not undermine national security" as Panetta has warned.
Congressional Republicans and Democrats must also decide in the coming weeks whether to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless and leave in place a payroll tax cut enacted last year to prop up the economy.
One other costly question is whether to fix the Medicare payment formula to prevent a nearly 30 percent cut in reimbursements to doctors.
At the end of 2012, Congress must decide whether to extend the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush. Democrats want to allow them to expire for wealthy Americans, Republicans want to extend them.
Under the automatic cuts, the Pentagon would face a 10 percent cut in its $550 billion budget in 2013. On the domestic side, education, agriculture and environmental programs would face cuts of around 8 percent.
The law exempts Social Security, Medicaid and many veterans' benefits and low-income programs. It also limits Medicare to a 2 percent reduction.
"It doesn't begin for 13 months," said Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at the centrist-Democratic group Third Way. "Between now and then is an eternity for Congress."
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor and Alan Fram contributed to this report.
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