Washington • Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel rejected the suggestion that President Barack Obama tapped him to "cut the heart out of the Pentagon," pointedly reminding lawmakers Thursday that Congress approved the smaller, deficit-driven military budgets long before he took the job.
Faced with a $487 billion budget cut over a decade, Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pentagon had no choice in drawing up the politically unpopular reductions in the president's proposed $526.6 billion budget for next year.
The blueprint calls for another round of domestic base closures, higher health care fees for retirees and their dependents, and a smaller pay raise for personnel. Dempsey cast the choice as between a well-compensated force and the readiness of the nation's war fighters.
Cost-conscious lawmakers have clamored for fiscal austerity in a period of trillion-dollar deficits, but often balk when the cuts hit military bases in their home states or affect powerful veterans' groups. That disconnect was on stark display during the nearly four hours the Pentagon leaders testified before the House Armed Services Committee.
In one exchange, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, questioned Hagel on what his role is managing the decline in defense spending or warning of the dangers of military cuts.
"There is a widespread view that you were brought into the Pentagon to cut defense," Thornberry told Hagel.
The secretary, on the job six weeks, said the cuts were law, part of the budget agreement reached between Obama and congressional Republicans in August 2011. Added to those reductions are $41 billion in automatic, across-the-board cuts, commonly known as sequestration.
Military leaders have warned that the automatic cuts would do harm to the military, but deficit hawks in Congress prevailed over defense hawks and the cuts kicked in March 1. Tea partyers, Republicans and Democrats continued to disagree over whether to reverse them.
"I can't lead my institution into a swamp of knife fighting over protesting what's already in place," Hagel told the committee.
He dismissed any notion that he was a hired gun at the Pentagon to gut the budget.
"The president did not instruct me, when he asked me to consider doing this job ... to go over and cut the heart out of the Pentagon. That wasn't his instruction to me, nor in any implication in any way."
The hearing underscored the difficulty the Pentagon faces in persuading Congress to accept what it says are cost-saving steps.
Republicans and Democrats on the panel criticized any additional base closings, arguing that the upfront costs were too high. Hagel said the base closing system was "imperfect," but argued it was a "comprehensive and fair approach" that would result in considerable savings in the long term.
The Pentagon has proposed $2.4 billion over five years to cover the initial costs of closings, set the round for 2015 and indicated that the closures would not be implemented until a year after that.
Hagel, along with his two predecessors Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, have called for increased fees for military health care, especially for retirees under the age of 65. The leaders pointed out that those in the TRICARE program once paid 27 percent of health care costs. Now their cost is 11 percent.
The overall health care program is some $50 billion and accounts for 10 percent of the Pentagon budget. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost could reach $65 billion by 2017 and $95 billion by 2030.
But several Republicans and Democrats on the committee, including Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., chairman of the military personnel subcommittee, dismissed the notion of raising fees.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the committee's top Democrat, summed up the difficulty for the Pentagon.
"There are places where we can cut the defense budget that will not affect our national security, that Congress rather consistently stops you from doing," he told Hagel.
One exchange over the disputed program known as MEADS missile defense captured the lack of consensus within Congress.
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., challenged Hagel's decision to spend $310 million for the last year of the program despite a prohibition in this year's defense policy bill. Hagel answered that he checked with Pentagon lawyers who advised that the department was obligated to make the last payment under the federal spending bill that Congress passed last month.
"Well, I, respectfully, think you need to get some new lawyers," Shuster said.
Obama's 2014 budget proposal calls for a base Pentagon budget of $526.6 billion about $52 billion more than the $475 billion level established by the spending cuts set in the 2011 budget agreement between Obama and congressional Republicans.
Obama's budget plan also includes an $88.5 billion placeholder for additional war costs in Afghanistan as the president decides on the pace of the drawdown of American combat troops next year and the eventual size of the residual force after December 2014. The administration likely will submit a war cost request in late April or early May.
Obama's budget reflects the end of more than a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan and the military's strategic pivot to Asia as a nuclear North Korea increases its belligerence and China builds up its forces. The cuts now envisioned come after years of robust budgets.
Instead of the across-the-board cuts of some $500 billion over 10 years, the administration is proposing $150 billion in additional defense savings over a decade, though Hagel said the reductions wouldn't occur until "beyond fiscal 2018."
One fact remains constant despite the cuts: The United States spends more on defense than the next 16 largest militaries in the world combined.