Senate committee debates defense budget

Story highlights

  • The Senate Armed Services Committee discussed defense budget cuts
  • Some call the planned cuts "an unacceptable risk"
  • Panetta and Dempsey testified before the committee
Some of the Senate's big guns opened fire Tuesday on the new defense budget request, calling it "unacceptable" and saying they were "seriously concerned."
But the Pentagon's biggest gun fired back, with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta telling the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the budget is Congress' test of whether cutting the deficit is about "talk or action."
Tuesday's hearing was the start of several days of testimony on Capitol Hill focused on the 2013 defense budget request that proposes cuts of tens of thousands of troops, reduces the U.S. fleet of warplanes and slows down ship-building in order to meet billions of dollars in cuts mandated by Congress when it passed the Budget Control Act last summer.
Over the span of 10 years, the Pentagon will reduce its budget by more than $500 billion.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the leading Republican on the committee, immediately criticized the spending plan.
"I can say today that I do not fully endorse this budget request. Indeed, I am seriously concerned about how we arrived at this point," McCain said.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Connecticut, was even more critical.
"I consider this budget an unacceptable risk," he said.
Panetta agreed with Lieberman, to an extent.
"Let me be clear. You can't take a half a trillion dollars out of the defense budget and not incur additional risks. We believe they are acceptable risks, but there are risks," Panetta explained.
But, he said, not addressing the nation's financial crisis is even riskier. "This will be a test for all of us of whether reducing the deficit is about talk or about action."
Two aspects of defense spending that are not addressed in the budget drew the attention of the senators on the committee -- sequestration and a proposal to realign bases.
Sequestration is the automatic round of future defense cuts included in last summer's budget deal in the event the Congress does not succeed in passing necessary budget cuts, a move that's meant to be politically painful.
McCain said sequestration "would be catastrophic for our national defense."
Panetta himself has called sequestration a potential disaster. "This is why Congress must do everything possible to make sure that we avoid sequestration. We are more than prepared to work with the Congress to try to develop an approach that will de-trigger sequestration," he said.
When introducing the strategy for the new budget, the Department of Defense also suggested that Congress consider two more rounds of BRAC -- or Base Realignment and Consolidation, the process under which old, outdated or redundant military bases in the U.S. are closed down and sold off to save money. But critics claim the BRAC process costs more in the short term than it could save.
"Before we consider another round of BRAC, the department ought to take a hard look at whether further reduction in bases can be made overseas, particularly in Europe," suggested committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, cited a Government Accountability Office report about the high cost of BRAC. "We're not going to see any savings from the 2005 BRAC until 2018," she said.
While the hearing was called to discuss the budget, several other defense-related issues came up in the discussions.
Among them was the Obama administration's consideration of a proposal to send five Taliban leaders now being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar as part of an effort to jump-start negotiations to end the fighting in Afghanistan.
The opposition to that idea was bipartisan.
"I am concerned," Levin said. "Such a significant step strikes me as premature."
McCain pointed out that "a quarter of those who have been released (from Guantanamo Bay) in the past have gone back into fight."
Panetta said that by law, no one can be released without his certification. "I'm convinced that in this kind of situation those steps are taken to ensure that these individuals do not wind up going back to the battlefield. I'm not going to certify that kind of transfer."
The discussion also touched on the cases of 16 Americans working for humanitarian groups who are facing charges in Egypt related to their work.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked about his recent visit to Egypt, which he said was planned before "the non-governmental organization crisis -- and it is a crisis."
"I am convinced that potentially they were underestimating the impact of this on our relationship," Dempsey said. "When I left there, there was no doubt that they understood the seriousness of it. But I'd like to add... I know of the amendment that's being proposed to break our military relationship and cut off all aid, and I think, my personal military judgment is that would be a mistake."
Moving to Iran, Panetta was asked about a Washington Post column in which the columnist claims the defense secretary believes Israel will attack Iran's nuclear program this spring.
"I think as the president has suggested, I think we do not think that Israel has made that decision," Panetta said.
"So you do not have a position as to whether it is likely that Israel will make such an attack this spring?" asked Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi.
"I do not," Panetta replied.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, focused on the problem of computer hacking and China.
"If we could find that the People's Liberation Army was involved in hacking into our defense infrastructure, would you consider that a hostile act by the Chinese?" Graham asked.
"I would consider it to be a crime," Dempsey said.
Graham said he'd be having lunch soon after the hearing with China's vice president, who's visiting Washington.
"What do you want me to tell him?" the South Carolina senator asked.
"Happy Valentine's Day," Dempsey replied.
The Joint Chiefs chair and Panetta were scheduled to meet later Tuesday with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, the man expected to become the next leader of China. The Pentagon is planning a full honors ceremony for his arrival.