Former defense secretary William Cohen said yesterday that as the world waits to see how a congressional panel will try to cut the deficit, lawmakers must be prodded to cross the political aisle and compromise.
Cohen, the former GOP senator who served in Democratic president Bill Clinton’s administration, said it is “discouraging” to him to “see what’s taking place up on Capitol Hill,” where he said Republicans and Democrats are less willing to compromise than in the past.
Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, Cohen talked about China’s increased military modernization, and noted the Asian nation, like others around the world, are watching how Congress handles the U.S. debt crisis.
“They’re watching us overseas, everything that we do,” Cohen said. “Do they take us seriously anymore if we don’t deal seriously with the issues?…We’ve got big problems, and I think what we have to do is to commend those people who are willing, at their own risk, political risk, to reach across and say, ‘You know something, I don’t like this, but I think it’s necessary. I don’t want to do this, I understand the impact, but I think it’s necessary.’”
He added he thinks that “what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to raise the level of criticism against those individuals who walk away from something that is both reasonable and fair.”
Cohen pointed to the new congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction and Congress, made up of six Democrats and six Republicans, that has been charged with finding up to $1.5 trillion in long-term federal savings by Nov. 23. If the panel can’t craft a plan that passes Congress by Dec. 23, an automatic sequester will slash roughly $500 billion in Pentagon defense spending, on top of the roughly $450 billion in defense cuts over the next decade already mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011.
Republicans have taken stances against new taxes and revenues in the deficit deal, and Democrats have balked at cuts to Social Security and Medicare, Cohen noted.
“We’ve got 12 members who have been empowered to make these decisions,” he said. “You’ve got six and six. Who’s going cross over? Which one’s going to be brave enough to go to the other side to break the tie at this point?”
Cohen said he has been discouraged to see congressional Republicans walk away from deals with the White House in which they would get most of what they want.
“We can disagree about his policies and have philosophical differences, but when the president of the United States offers you a deal, 80 percent of what you want, usually you take that, fight later for the other 20 percent,” he said. “But to walk away from something and say no, under no circumstances we get 100 percent or nothing at all, what I fear is taking place is we’re having a parliament without a parliamentary system. And so you’ve got those on the right over here, and those on the left over here, and there’s nobody in the middle, because those in the middle get punished.”
Cohen, like other defense-minded officials, is concerned about the impact of the military budget cuts. He said a smaller force can be powerful, but he warned against hollowing it out.
Also yesterday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met with combatant commanders to discuss the budget, Pentagon spokesman George Little said. And on Capitol Hill, the House passed a temporary budget for the Pentagon and rest of the federal government that will run from the start of fiscal year 2012 on Saturday until next Tuesday, when Congress is expected to pass another continuing resolution funding the government until Nov. 18.