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Washington • Soldiers heading to Afghanistan would receive less training while the Navy would be forced to buy fewer ships if lawmakers fail in the next five months to come up with an alternative deficit-reduction plan, a Pentagon official said Wednesday.
Imploring Congress to act, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and the White House's acting budget chief, Jeff Zients, outlined the devastating effect on defense and domestic programs if $110 billion in across-the-board reductions begin on Jan. 2.
That approach "is a blunt, indiscriminate instrument designed to force congressional action on achieving a balanced deficit reduction plan," Zients told the House Armed Services Committee. "It is not the responsible way for our nation to achieve deficit reduction."
Compromise, however, seems highly unlikely before the November election as the issue is caught up in the political fight over taxes and spending. Democrats insist any plan to spare the military include tax increases on high-wage earners; Republicans reject any plan that calls for higher taxes.
The hearing underscored that political reality. The meeting of the typically bipartisan panel quickly degenerated into finger-pointing over who was responsible for last year's budget deal to cut spending and raise the nation's budget authority.
There was little discussion of a solution to the automatic cuts.
In a testy exchange, Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., insisted that President Barack Obama has done nothing to address the "atrocities" of the impending cuts.
Zients pointed out that Congress wrote the law calling for the automatic cuts and has five months to act. "What's holding it up is the Republican refusal to make the top 2 percent pay their fair share" in taxes, he said.
Carter said military personnel would be exempt from the automatic cuts, but every other military account would be affected, from weapons to the number of hours commissaries operate to potential furloughs.
"Some later-deploying units (including some deploying to Afghanistan) could receive less training, especially in the Army and Marine Corps," Carter said. "Under some circumstances, this reduced training could impact their ability to respond to a new contingency, should one occur."
In the three months to the election, Republicans are using the looming reductions in military spending as a political cudgel against Obama, arguing that the commander in chief is willing to risk the nation's security as he uses the leverage in the budget showdown with Congress. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has echoed GOP lawmakers' criticism.
Democrats counter that Republicans who voted for the cuts are trying to wriggle out of last August's deficit-cutting agreement and they must consider tax increases as part of any congressional compromise to stave off reductions.
Twenty-two Republicans on the committee, including the chairman, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, and 18 Democrats voted for the cuts. Thirteen committee Republicans and seven Democrats, including ranking member Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, opposed them.
Raising the political stakes, GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina spent two days in some of the most contested presidential states warning of the impact of the cuts on local businesses and jobs. They demanded that Obama negotiate with Republicans and Democrats to work out a solution.
Responding to the announcement sparing personnel, the three expressed frustration with the administration's handling of the issue.
"Rather than coming to the table with Republicans and Democrats in Congress to finally address the issue of budget sequestration, the Obama administration is flailing around," they said, in an attempt to make the cutting "look less devastating than it actually is. Today's announcement increases the impact of these arbitrary cuts on the readiness of our armed forces."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., noted that there are "a few Republicans wandering around the country stirring up things" on the looking cuts, and he urged the lawmakers to try to persuade other Republicans to back tax increases.
Major defense contractors are wary of the impending cuts and debating whether they need to advise employees 60 days in advance of possible layoffs. That would be four days before the election. A law says those notices would have to go out ahead of time.
The Labor Department, however, said Monday that federal contractors do not have to warn their employees about potential layoffs from the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts due to kick in Jan. 2. The guidance letter said it would be "inappropriate" for employers to send such warnings because it is still speculative if and where the cuts might occur.
The White House told agency officials Tuesday to "continue normal spending and operations" since more than five months remain for Congress to act to avert the automatic cuts.
According to a U.S. government official, the automatic budget cuts would slash about 10,000 jobs within the intelligence community. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about numbers that have not been released.