House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., opposes allowing Pentagon leaders to select what gets cut under sequestration. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON: — House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon on Tuesday broke with Senate defense hawks by opposing a plan to allow Pentagon leaders authority to pick what gets axed via sequestration.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, R-Nev., took to the chamber floor early Tuesday afternoon to endorse the notion of giving top Defense Department leaders the ability to pick and choose what gets cut — and spared — under across-the-board sequester cuts.
His endorsement came in the form of blasting House Republicans for not including such a provision in its version of last-minute legislation to raise the debt ceiling through early February and fund the government through mid-January.
“This [House] bill would give no flexibility to the president or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to move money around,” Reid said. “I don’t know how this country can go farther with this bill. ... It’s awful for our country.”
Most defense hawks in recent months have voiced support for flexibility for the Pentagon.
Most feel that, if the Pentagon has to live with sequestration, it would be best for DoD leaders and congressional appropriators to determine what should get cut the deepest and what should be safeguarded.
“I would be glad to have it in there,” influential Senate Armed Services Committee member John McCain, R-Ariz., said Tuesday.
McCain said he would prefer to insert flexibility language if and when the Senate takes up its version of a 2014 Pentagon policy bill. But if it made it into the emergency debt-government funding bill, he said, “I would love to have it in there.”
Senate Armed Services Committee member Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., told Defense News on Tuesday she thinks “the flexibility language is important.”
“It’s not something that’s a deal breaker for me,” Ayotte said. “But I would prefer to have it in there.”
McKeon took the opposite stance on Tuesday, creating a rare chasm between the HASC chairman and Senate GOP hawks. McKeon is worried flexibility could make it tougher to get rid of sequestration, as many congressional Republicans and Democrats say they want to eventually do.
“The chairman’s goal is resolving sequestration,” McKeon’s spokesman, Claude Chafin, said in an email. “He is concerned that contrary to a bipartisan desire to end the defense sequester, flexibility actually makes sequester a likely long-term proposition. He is opposed to any flexibility package at this time.”
The stance also puts McKeon on the opposite side of the issue than Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe, R-Okla.
Inhofe for months led the charge to get Senate and House approval for sequester flexibility. Inhofe in March said Congress needs “to give the department the flexibility it needs to mitigate risk and operate within these severe budgetary constraints.
“Although the amount of the cuts to the topline would remain the same, the department would have maneuvering room to decide where to take them,” Inhofe said at that time. “I talked to all of the service chiefs about this topic, and all of them agreed that this flexibility would provide significant relief and help to reduce risk.”
The 2011 Budget Control Act stipulates that twin $500 billion cuts be made every year for 10 years to all non-exempt defense and domestic accounts are automatic. That means Pentagon and agency leaders have no ability to protect high-priority programs and target low-priority ones for bigger cuts.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and a bipartisan group of senators late last week took up Inhofe’s cause, pushing a debt-ceiling plan that featured language granting all federal agency leaders the flexibility most say they want.
Pentagon brass, industry officials and hawkish lawmakers want DoD to be granted sequestration flexibility because the first round of across-the-board cuts hit operations and maintenance and procurement accounts hard.
The next round is slated to kick in Jan. 15. Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are finishing a version of emergency legislation that would adopt a GOP-preferred $986 billion government-wide funding level. It also would only fund the government through Jan. 15 to force a conversation about budgetary matters, including sequestration — a Democratic demand.
'Running out of hope'
The debate about whether or not to include the sequestration language came as promising talks between Reid and McConnell about a deal to open the government and avoid a debt default ceased.
The leaders, senior senators said, have decided to see what the House GOP leadership puts on the floor, or if it fails to get enough votes and the lower chamber does nothing in the next 24 hours.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a McConnell confidant, told reporters he doesn’t “think there are any discussions going on now” among Senate leaders.
Moderate senators streamed out of separate party luncheons to tell reporters that the differences between the House and Senate debt deals aren’t that big.
But the White House and Reid called the House plan a waste of time that wouldn’t see the light of day in the Senate since it again targets part of the Affordable Healthcare Act, or Obamacare.
With the clock ticking toward Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s Thursday deadline for a debt deal, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he remains optimistic that a deal will get done.
“But I’m running out of hope,” Nelson said.