Panetta To Hill: Clock Is Ticking

Panetta To Hill: Clock Is Ticking

Emelie Rutherford

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta laid out a hefty agenda he wants Congress to tackle after the presidential election, including the “sequestration” budget cuts that have been stirring controversy on the campaign trail this week.

Panetta, at what was likely his last press briefing before the Nov. 6 election, offered little in the way of new commentary on sequestration cuts beyond stressing time is running out for Congress to stop them from starting on Jan. 2, 2103.

“There are only 70 days until that happens, and Congress is certainly on the clock when it comes to that potential sequestration occurring,” he said yesterday afternoon.

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The House and Senate are now in recess and not expected to cast votes again until Nov. 13. They then could potentially remain in session, during a so-called lame-duck session, for the remainder of the calendar year. They have multiple thorny issues to address, including the scheduled expiration of former President George W. Bush’s tax cuts.

Panetta said yesterday that “after a tough national election the American people, I think, will expect both parties to roll up their sleeves, work together and solve the problems facing the nation, and to protect our national security.”

Panetta said the Pentagon has not yet been directed by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget to start contingency planning for what will happen if the $500 billion in decade-long sequestration reductions to planned defense spending start next year.

“In line with the president’s comments and my comments and everybody else’s comments, the hope is that sequester won’t happen,” Panetta said, presumably referencing multiple statements President Barack Obama has made this week on the politically unpopular sequestration cuts.

Sequestration refers to the the $1.2 trillion decade-long reduction in planned defense and non-defense spending that will start next January unless Congress and the White House can agree on another way to cut the federal deficit.

Obama spurred confusion when he said Monday night, during his final debate with Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney, that sequestration “will not happen.”

Congressional Republicans and Democrats, along with the White House, have not agreed yet on an alternate deficit-cutting plan to replace, delay, or change sequestration.

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Obama also said on Tuesday, during an interview with the Des Moines Register, that he was ready to use the sequestration cuts as leverage in a larger deficit-and-tax package in the first six month of his potential second term as president. But Obama adviser David Plouffe then reportedly told reporters Wednesday that the president wants to start negotiations right after the election, assuming Obama is reelected.

Romney has said he would stop the sequestration cuts, along with $487 billion in longterm defense spending cuts already budgeted, if elected.

Beyond addressing sequestration yesterday, Panetta called on Congress to pass a defense authorization bill.

Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters in September the Senate could debate the policy-setting defense authorization legislation for a brief period in the lame-duck session, perhaps for just one or two days, instead of the full week of debate it often commands in the chamber. SASC staff would have to work with senators behind the scenes to work out deals on amendments they want to offer, Levin said.

The SASC approved the defense authorization bill on May 24 and the House passed a different version of the legislation May 18.

Panetta further called on Congress to pass cyber security legislation “to ensure that we can help defend the nation against a cyber attack.”

He delivered a dire warning about the threat of a crippling cyber attack on the United States during an Oct. 11 speech to the Business Executives for National Security in New York City (Defense Daily, Oct. 15). In response, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he plans to resume debate on stalled cyber legislation during the lame-duck session. 

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