Panetta Draws Line in Sand Over Defense Cuts

Part of the budget cuts that were in the final debt ceiling bill included the possibility of slashing defense spending by up to $1 trillion over a 10-year period. This time, President Obama’s Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, is drawing a line in the sand and saying “no” to such draconian cuts.

Both Democrats and Republicans needed leverage in the budget debate and Republicans know that Obama has lagging poll numbers on his handling of the economy. If they force him to champion cutting the nation’s defense spending, that may be the silver bullet they need to win back the White House in 2012.

If President Obama were to advocate substantial reductions to the nation’s 1.43 million military personnel or eliminate subsidies for the Pentagon’s subsidized grocery stores, then voters, including those serving our country, would take notice. On the other hand, Obama has to decide how much he’s willing to reduce entitlement spending in a key election year.

“Can you imagine anything more irresponsible, for the commander in chief of the military to promote – not just promote but insist – on the knowing destruction of the U.S. military as a means to threaten Congress,” Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), said prior to the Senate’s vote on the debt-reduction bill last Tuesday.

Democrats are saying they plan to use automatic defense cuts as a way to force Republicans to support some type of tax increase but GOP leaders are unfazed.

“In the coming months, our Republican colleagues will be given the following test: Will they choose to protect special-interest tax breaks over investments necessary to keep our nation strong and secure?” Rep. Chris Hollen of Maryland (D) told Bloomberg. “Let’s get on with that big national debate.”

Yet former House Democrat and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta may be their hardest sell.

“We are already taking our share of the discretionary cuts as part of this debt ceiling deal, and those are going to be tough enough,” Panetta said at his first press conference after moving into his new role.

Pentagon budget officials have told Panetta that first round cuts to defense spending could be as high as $400 billion. What’s more troublesome to the Pentagon, is that if the new super committee tasked with recommending budget reductions cannot agree on anything, an additional $500 billion in military spending could be taken away.

Panetta’s position is that the additional $500 billion would be “completely unacceptable” if Congress or the super committee cannot agree on anything.

“I didn’t come into this job to quit, I came into this job to fight. And my intention is to fight to make sure that hopefully some common sense prevails here and that the committee that is established does its work in looking at these areas of the budget,” said Panetta.

Panetta will undoubtedly have the support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Republican leaders in Congress.

“Our men and women down range have enough to worry about just getting their job done,” said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in comments with Panetta. “They shouldn’t also be concerned about whether or not they will be paid to do that job or whether or not their families will continue to get the support they need during long absences. We can do better than that, as a military and as a nation.”

“This debt deal cannot be allowed to dictate U.S. defense policy for the next decade,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) in remarks this week. “It’s important that we understand what’s at stake with such major defense cuts and think long and hard before making any decision that puts our security at risk.”

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