By JENNIFER STEINHAUER and ROBERT PEAR
c.2011 New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON - As pessimism mounted this week over the ability of a bipartisan congressional committee to agree on a deficit-reduction plan, lawmakers began taking steps to head off the large cuts in Pentagon spending that would automatically result from the panel's failure to come to an agreement.
Members of both parties and both chambers said they were increasingly fearful that the 12-member committee would be unable to bridge deep partisan chasms and find $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction as required under the law that raised the debt ceiling and created the committee in the summer.
As talks sputtered, one panel member publicly lamented that the process was not working, and the group was chastised by a bipartisan group of budget experts at a public hearing as failing to show progress. Several members of Congress, especially Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services committees, are readying legislation that would undo the automatic across-the-board cuts totaling nearly $500 billion for military programs, or exchange them for cuts in other areas of the federal budget.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has drafted a bill that would replace the defense cuts that would occur under a process known as sequestration with a 5 percent across-the-board cut to government spending. It would be combined with a 10 percent cut in pay for members of Congress. In the House, similar measures are being assembled.
"If the joint select committee does not do what it needs to do," said Rep. K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, "most of us will move heaven and earth to find an alternative that prevents a sequester from happening."
After listening to dire predictions by the Joint Chiefs of Staff about the effects of automatic cuts, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., was even more blunt. "The sequester will never take place," Garamendi said. "It's not going to happen."
Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate and a member of the deficit-reduction committee, has repeatedly said he has no intention of letting such cuts occur. Some House members said they were being urged by defense contractors and other military interests in their districts to avert such reductions. One House Democrat said that private conversations about undoing the sequester have occurred between staff members for the House Armed Services Committee and defense industry representatives.
"There is more fear this time," said Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., about the anxiety being expressed by military contractors in his district. Brooks said he voted against the debt-ceiling legislation because of the possibility of deep Pentagon cuts.
Under the debt-ceiling budget agreement, members of the joint committee, evenly divided between the parties, have until Nov. 23 to recommend ways to reduce budget deficits by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Both houses are supposed to vote on the package by Dec. 23. If no legislation is enacted, the government would automatically cut almost $500 billion from military spending, with an equal amount from nondefense programs, between 2013 and 2021.
The inability of the committee to reach an agreement would be a major embarrassment not only for its members, but for Congress, which already suffers from record low approval ratings. Efforts to undo the automatic cuts could also lead to a further downgrade of federal debt, as rating agencies have been counting on the savings as evidence of Washington's commitment to easing the deficit.
Republican leaders have so far pushed the panel to come to an agreement that would make talk of undoing the cuts unnecessary.
The House speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio, said he wanted the joint committee to succeed, but would not tamper with the mechanism for automatic cuts. "I would feel bound by it," Boehner said. "It was part of the agreement. The sequester is ugly. Why? Because we don't want anybody to go there."
Some Democrats are increasingly concerned that some Republicans on the committee, in declaring that they will not be able to accept new revenues toward deficit reduction, are calculating that they will be able to simply reverse the triggered cuts.
"Republicans should not count on taking the easy way out if they continue to resist a balanced deficit deal that includes revenue increases," warned Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Senate Democrat.
Republicans have expressed more alarm about possible across-the-board cuts in Pentagon spending than Democrats have voiced about cuts in domestic programs that would also occur. Many safety-net programs for low-income people, including Medicaid and food stamps, would be exempt from such automatic cuts. And Medicare payments to health care providers could not be reduced more than 2 percent.
In recent weeks, Republicans have convened hearings at which Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and other Pentagon officials have denounced the possibility of large cuts to the military budget. At a classified briefing last week, Panetta said such cuts would be "devastating," said lawmakers who attended. Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, chief of naval operations, told the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard P. McKeon, R-Calif.: "Sequestration will cause irreversible damage. It will hollow the military."
At a recent meeting of the deficit-reduction committee, Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., sought assurances that nothing would prevent Congress from changing the mechanism for automatic cuts in military spending. The witness, Douglas W. Elmendorf, director of the Congressional Budget Office, said, "Any Congress can reverse the actions of a previous Congress."
The special panel has been hamstrung by the same partisan divisions that have hampered negotiations on spending for the past 10 months. Democrats on the committee offered a plan to cut $2.5 trillion to $3 trillion, through cuts in the growth of federal entitlement programs, including Medicare, and more than $1 trillion in new tax revenues, but it was rejected by Republicans who are dead set against new taxes.
The perception of gridlock surrounding the panel has contributed to a sense of gloom on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have begun to prepare for the worst.
"I almost did not vote for the debt deal because of the sequestration that so disproportionately targets the Department of Defense," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. "I think it is a huge problem."
Some Democrats had expected the threat of automatic cuts in military spending to be the leverage to force Republicans to consider tax increases. Republicans said Democrats should not count on that.
"If Democratic members of the committee think that Republicans just cannot resist calls or demands for a big tax increase because of the sense of unacceptable cuts, I think they would be wrong in that," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.