Lawmakers press Obama to help avoid defense cuts

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans pleaded with President Barack Obama on Thursday to negotiate with Congress to avert automatic, across-the-board military cuts that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned would be devastating.

The reductions — $50 billion in the first year and $492 billion over a decade — won't kick in until January 2013, but lawmakers argued that Congress and the Obama administration can't wait months to deal with the issue and leave it to a lame-duck session in December. Jobs are at stake as well as long-term Pentagon contracts, they said.

"Please can we sit down with the president," Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, told reporters at a news conference, "for the sake of the nation's defense."

But while McCain and six other Republicans ratcheted up the political pressure on the president and congressional Democrats, the Arizona lawmaker also acknowledged that both the administration and congressional Republicans were responsible for setting the cuts in motion.

The budget agreement reached last August calls for defense cuts of $487 billion over a decade, a reflection of the drawdown of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the pressure to reduce the nation's deficit. But the failure of Congress' so-called "supercommittee" to come up with at least $1.2 trillion in savings means automatic cuts of more than $1 trillion next January to defense and domestic programs.

"The blame is there," McCain said. "So the responsibility is there."

Said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.: "Work it out now."

Several Senate Republicans have proposed reducing the size of the federal workforce by 5 percent over 10 years and freezing federal pay to offset one year of the cuts. That proposal, however, has no Democratic support. Panetta has said the automatic cuts would be like taking a meat ax to the Pentagon budget. The Obama administration has urged lawmakers to revisit the failed attempt by the supercommittee to cut the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion,

After budgets nearly doubled over a decade, the Pentagon is looking at tighter spending for next year — $525.4 billion in base spending and another $88.5 billion for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The total is nearly $32 billion less than this year's budget.

Lawmakers also complained Thursday that as the Pentagon works to rein in spending, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program continues to exceed expected costs.

Frank Kendall III, who has been nominated to be undersecretary of defense for acquisition, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, that the program is about $150 billion over budget but officials are trying to minimize additional overruns in the future. He said there will continue to be cost adjustments as the test program goes on.

Pentagon press secretary George Little said the total cost of the F-35 is expected to be about $1.45 trillion over the life of the program. He said last's year's estimate was about $1 trillion, but that total did not include some of the costs that are now being included in the latest estimate.

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Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

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