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Reid endorses giving DoD brass sequestration flexibility in debt bill

Oct. 15, 2013 - 04:41PM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
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Senate Democratic and GOP leaders say they are close to a deal that would raise the nation's debt ceiling and open the government — and also delay any action on sequestration until January. (Mandel Ngan / AFP)

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WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Tuesday endorsed giving Pentagon leaders greater authority to decide what gets cut and what is spared under sequestration.

The Nevada Democrat signaled the Senate’s bill to temporarily raise the nation’s borrowing limit and reopen the government would grant Defense Department brass much-desired flexibility under sequestration.

His comments came on the Senate floor about an hour after the House Republican leadership announced it would act on its version of emergency fiscal legislation that is like the upper chamber’s bill in some key ways — but very different in others.

House leadership aides had not, at the time of this posting, responded to a reporter’s inquiries seeking details of their new bill. But Reid, in bashing the House GOP bill, indicated the emergency bill he’s working on with GOP senators would include flexibility language.

“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,” Reid said. “It’s awful for our country.”

US Senate leaders have yet to decide whether emergency fiscal legislation would give Pentagon and other department heads greater flexibility to decide what gets get under sequestration.

Senate Democratic and GOP leaders say they are close to a deal that would raise the nation’s debt ceiling and open the government — and also delay any action on sequestration until January.

There was speculation into Monday evening that the emergency legislation could grant department heads much-requested flexibility under sequestration.

Asked about that scuttlebutt, a senior Senate source replied: “There’s no final plan yet.”

Under the 2011 Budget Control Act, twin $500 billion sequestration cuts to all non-exempt defense and domestic accounts are automatic. That means Pentagon and agency leaders have no discretion to shield high-priority programs and cut low-priority ones deeper.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and a bipartisan group of senators late last week were pushing a debt-ceiling plan that featured a sequestration-relief section.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are negotiating the upper chamber’s emergency fiscal bill. But they have yet to decide to include the flexibility provision or throw it out.

A final deal appears close, with Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., telling CNN on Tuesday morning he is hopeful that Reid and McConnell will announce a final deal later in the morning. Pryor has been involved in the last-minute borrowing limit talks.

Pentagon brass, industry officials and hawkish lawmakers want DoD to be granted sequestration flexibility because the first round of across-the-board cut hit operations and maintenance and procurement accounts hard.

The next round is slated to kick in Jan. 15. Reid and McConnell adopted GOP priorities by including in their nearly final plan a $986 billion government-wide funding level preferred by Republicans.

The idea of funding the government only through mid-January to force a discussion about budgetary matters like replacing sequestration with other deficit-paring items is a Democratic wish backed by GOP defense hawks.

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