WASHINGTON - The only thing a bitterly partisan Congress can agree on as it heads for the exits is that looming defense cuts will have a devastating effect on the military.
No resolution emerged Thursday to avert $55 billion in cuts to a defense budget of roughly $600 billion, beginning Jan. 2. A House Armed Services hearing with the Pentagon comptroller and the services' vice chiefs devolved into finger-pointing between Republicans and Democrats.
Republicans blamed President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate. Democrats argued that the GOP must be willing to consider tax increases.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, summed up the frustration as one of the least productive and least popular Congresses in history breaks for the Nov. 6 election and an eight-week recess with a long list of work undone.
"Even though I didn't vote for this idiotic, stupid law, I accept responsibility as part of the Congress, and I think it's up to us to find the solution. However we do that, we better do it fast," he said.
As it turns out, the blunt-talking Reyes is one of 11 lawmakers who lost in a primary and will be leaving Congress.
The Republican-led committee dragged comptroller Robert Hale and the military leaders to Capitol Hill to describe the impact of the automatic, across-the-board cuts, which will occur if Congress fails to come up with a deficit-cutting plan that Obama can sign into law.
The $110 billion reductions to defense and domestic programs, combined with the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts at the end of the year, have been called the "fiscal cliff." Budget analysts warn that the combination could send the economy back into a recession.
The across-the-board cuts were devised as part of last summer's budget and debt deal between Obama and congressional Republicans. They were intended to drive a budget supercommittee - evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans - to strike a compromise. But the panel deadlocked, and only recriminations have emerged.
Hale echoed previous testimony from administration officials about the specific impact - less training for warfighters heading to Afghanistan, fewer ships and aircraft and possible furloughs for the military's civilian employees.
"We would have fewer options to respond quickly to emerging crises," Hale warned. "Inevitably, this will require changes to the national security strategy that was put into effect last January and which we think remains the right one for the times."
And if the law changes in some way to ease the cuts? Hale dismissed that idea.
"We need to avoid this thing, not try to make it better. I'd like to offer you an analogy. If you're driving into a brick wall at 60 miles an hour, let's find a way to avoid the wall, not figure out a way to pick up the pieces after we hit it," the comptroller said.
The panel's chairman, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., painted an even more dire picture.
"As far as I'm concerned, the Defense Department shuts down January 2," he said.
The expectation in Washington is that the election will break the logjam, and Congress and the administration will work out a solution in a jam-packed lame-duck session. The remarks from Republicans and Democrats suggest they have miles to go toward reaching any agreement.
Republicans who voted for the law implementing the cuts argued that the across-the-board reductions were Obama's idea. Several GOP members accused the president of being AWOL in the midst of a crisis.
"It's time for him to lead, follow or get the hell out of the way of this country," said Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga.
The panel's top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, said lawmakers need to be realistic about what must be done.
"Stop pretending that we can bang the table about how awful the deficit is and then shy away from any of the steps necessary to cut spending or raise revenue to deal with it," Smith said. "That's the fundamental denial that we have to deal with to prevent this problem from becoming very, very great come January."
Several Republicans and Democrats said it was a mistake for Congress to leave Washington without resolving an issue that the military leaders had made clear is undermining morale and would undercut national security.
And yet lawmakers are expected to head home by week's end.
"I think it's an interesting contradiction that this hearing has set forth chapter and verse about the urgency of this problem, and the response of this institution is to leave town for six weeks," said Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J.