House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., is seen Feb. 6 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)
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The powerful chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Friday he sees no way to avoid the across-the-board cuts of sequestration.
"I think it is going to happen," said Rep Buck McKeon, R-Calif. "Both sides have fixed themselves into positions and are locked."
Asked if there would be another postponement, McKeon told reporters during a breakfast meeting of the Defense Writers Group that he thought not. "I think it is going to kick in March 1," McKeon said. "I think maybe when there is enough pain, there might be an agreement."
"My hope is it is weeks, not months," when a budget agreement is reached, he said.
McKeon said some relief from the arbitrary cuts might come in a pending six-month appropriations bill that would allow some shifting of money and increased reprogramming authority.
McKeon said he is unlikely to support any agreement that cuts more out of defense than the reductions already ordered. McKeon supports a bill that would avoid one year of sequestration, largely through a 10 percent cut in the federal workforce.
Once the immediate budget crisis is over, McKeon said, the committee will look at defense priorities, including what could be big benefits changes for current and future service members. "We are going to have to look at health care. We are going to have to look at retirement," he said.
On retired pay, McKeon appeared to endorse the Pentagon's view that the 20-year retirement system has outlived its usefulness. "You have to serve 20 years to get a pension. Where is the fairness in that," he said.
McKeon voted for the Budget Control Act of 2011 that included the threat of automatic budget cuts if Congress and the White House couldn't agree on a $1.2 trillion deficit reduction. The idea, he said, was the harm of sequestration "was strong enough" that an agreement would be reached. It ends up that was not a big enough disincentive, he said.
"Sequestration really kicked in months ago," McKeon said of cuts already underway in the military and in defense-related businesses. "I know training has been cut back."
The Joint Chiefs of Staff testified Wednesday before McKeon's committee, warning that military readiness will suffer from budget cuts and that long-term damage will result even if the sequester is reversed.
The chiefs took some heat during the hearing for not saying more, earlier and louder, about the devastating impact of the cuts, but McKeon defended them. The chiefs, he said, had been ordered not to plan for sequester last year so they could not provide details. "By the time you become one of the chiefs, you know how to follow an order."
"It is not their job to hold press conferences and try to sway public opinion," he said of the chiefs.