Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warns against ‘disastrous’ spending cuts

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Sunday urged a divided Congress to unite and avoid scheduled budget slashing that would bring total defense cuts to almost $1 trillion in the coming decade.

The Department of Defense already must trim $487 billion under the Budget Control Act, the debt ceiling compromise reached last summer. Panetta said his department is prepared to handle those reductions with a plan that “meets not only the goal of savings but also, more importantly, protects a strong national defense for this country.”

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But deeper cuts are coming if Congress does not find an alternative.

The Budget Control Act called for $2.1 trillion in total deficit reductions between 2012 and 2021. Most of those cuts, $1.2 trillion, were unspecified, and a 12-member congressional “supercommittee” was charged with determining where the money would come from.

To promote bipartisan compromise, lawmakers included in the Budget Control Act a list of default cuts, known as sequesters, to be implemented if the supercommittee failed to reach an agreement.

The supercomittee did fail, and the default cuts include another $500 billion from defense.

“So now you have this automatic meat ax that will suddenly take place some time in January,” Panetta said during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week.” “I think what both Republicans and Democrats need to do, and the leaders on both sides, is to recognize that if sequester takes place, it would be disastrous for our national defense and, very frankly, for a lot of very important domestic programs. They have a responsibility to come together, find the money necessary to de-trigger sequester.’’

Panetta was responding to comments made last week by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who indicated Democrats would rather allow the defense sequester to happen than give in to Republican demands for more domestic spending reductions.

“I am not going to back off the sequestration,” Reid said Wednesday. “That’s the law we passed. We did it because it wouldn’t make things easy for us. It made it so we would have to do something. And if we didn’t, these cuts would kick in.’’

“To now see the Republicans scrambling to do away with the cuts to defense, I will not accept that,’’ Reid said. “My people — in the state of Nevada and I think the country — have had enough of whacking all the programs. We’ve cut them to a bare bone, and defense is going to have to bear their share of the burden.”

Despite Reid’s hard-line statement, Panetta said he is confident Reid and members of both parties understand the potential damage of further defense cuts and will cooperate to avoid them.

“I know Harry Reid and I know the last thing he wants is for sequester to take place,” Panetta said, “and I think that should be true, frankly, for all Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill.”

Panetta’s firm prodding of Congress marked a rare interjection into political affairs. In the ABC interview, the former CIA director sidestepped questions about President Obama’s use of the Osama bin Laden raid in campaign ads.

“I would hope that both Republicans and Democrats would be justly proud of what was accomplished,” Panetta said.

He also refused to offer an opinion of gay marriage, which Obama endorsed two weeks ago: “My viewpoint is not relevant to what I have to do in this job. What is relevant is the fact that we are engaged in implementing the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and we are doing that very successfully. What is relevant is that I want to be able to open up opportunities in the Defense Department, in our military, to everyone to be able to serve our country.”