WASHINGTON - A massive House Republican measure to keep the government operating would ease some of the pain of automatic spending cuts slamming the Defense Department, the nation's senior military leaders told Congress on Tuesday.
Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff painted a dire picture of construction projects on hold, limits on aircraft carriers patrolling the waters and even a delay in the expansion of Arlington National Cemetery due to the $43 billion in across-the-board cuts that kicked in Friday.
Problematic for the Pentagon has been the combination of the automatic cuts and the government still operating at last year's spending levels. The GOP measure unveiled on Monday would give the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments sought-after flexibility in spending that other agencies lack.
The military leaders embraced that prospect, a political boost for the GOP measure just days before the House votes.
"It mitigates at least one-third of our problem," said Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, who earlier told the panel that the budget cuts and last year's spending level had left the service with an $18 billion shortfall in operation and maintenance plus $6 billion in cuts in other programs.
Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of Naval Operations, said the bill would be "almost night and day," with a shortfall of $8.6 billion in operations reduced by more than half.
"We can get back to the covenant that we have with the combatant commanders to get almost all of that back," Greenert told a House Appropriations panel. "We get two carrier overhauls. We get a carrier new construction. ... We get all the military construction.
Marine Corps Gen. James Amos said he was heartened by the legislation.
The GOP measure would fund day-to-day federal operations through September - and avert a potential government shutdown later this month.
The measure would leave in place automatic cuts of 5 percent to domestic agencies and 7.8 percent to the Pentagon ordered Friday by President Barack Obama after months of battling with Republicans over the budget.
The GOP funding measure is set to advance through the House on Thursday in hopes of preventing a government shutdown when a six-month spending bill passed last September runs out March 27.
Top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said that bipartisan talks were under way on changes that the Senate would make to the House measure. He said that the House GOP leadership doesn't expect the Senate to simply approve the House bill without changes.
"There seems to be no interest on either side in having a kind of confrontational government shutdown scenario," McConnell said.
The administration weighed in Tuesday with a statement criticizing the House GOP measure for failing to provide enough money to implement Obama's signature legislation to overhaul financial regulation and the U.S. health care system. The statement, however, did not threaten a veto.
The White House said the measure "raises concerns about the government's ability to protect consumers, avoid deep cuts in critical services that families depend on, and implement critical domestic priorities such as access to quality and affordable health care."
Senate Democrats want to add more detailed budgets for domestic Cabinet agencies, but it will take GOP help to do so. The House measure also denies money sought by Obama and his Democratic allies to implement the signature 2010 laws overhauling the health care system and financial regulation.
The impact of the new cuts was proving slow to reach the broader public.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in separate testimony on Capitol Hill, acknowledged that it will be "several months" before meat inspectors are furloughed as part of the across-the-board spending cuts.
Vilsack told a House Agriculture Committee hearing that each meat inspector will likely be furloughed 11 or 12 days, instead of 15 days as the Obama administration earlier claimed.
The White House has used the meat inspector furloughs as one example of how the cuts will affect the economy. Meatpacking plants cannot operate without inspectors, so the furloughs will cause plants across the country to shut down intermittently.
Vilsack said the process will be complicated because of negotiations with labor unions that represent the meat inspectors.
Members of the committee pressed Vilsack on whether the department could find ways to make other cuts in the food safety budget instead of cutting inspector salaries. But Vilsack said 87 percent of that agency's budget goes to inspectors and there is no other way to do it under the rules of the sequester.
"No matter how you slice it, no matter how you dice it, there is nothing you can do without impacting the front-line inspectors," he said.
Vilsack also complained about the structure of the across-the-board cuts.
"The problem with a sequester is that it doesn't give you any flexibility," he said.
Separately, the Energy Department told Washington Gov. Jay Inslee that the automatic cuts may impede attempts to close the radioactive waste tanks leaking at Hanford Nuclear Reservation, with possible furloughs or layoffs.
The across-the-board cuts would carve $85 billion in spending from the government's $3.6 trillion budget for this year, concentrating the cuts in the approximately $1 trillion allocated to the day-to-day agency operating budgets set by Congress each year. Those so-called discretionary accounts received big boosts in the first two years of Obama's presidency, when Democrats controlled Congress, but have borne the brunt of the cuts approved as Obama and Republicans have grappled over the budget.
Both Democrats and Republicans for months have warned that the cuts are draconian and would slow the growth of the economy, costing hundreds of thousands of jobs. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, for instance, says they would slow the economy by 0.6 percent and cost about 750,000 jobs.
The military already is facing a cut in projected spending of $487 billion over 10 years, reductions established in the budget law that Obama and congressional Republicans embraced in August 2011. The automatic cuts are in addition to those cuts.
The House bill would boost the Pentagon's operation and maintenance account to $173.4 billion, about $10 billion more than last year's level but slightly below Obama's request. Other accounts - personnel, procurement, and research and development - would face cuts to make up the difference.