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Lawmakers: Syria debate could offer chance to stop sequester

Sep. 9, 2013 - 04:17PM   |  
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Some lawmakers are looking to use debate over a potential U.S. attack on Syria as a reason to protect the Defense Department from sequestration in 2014.

Some lawmakers are looking to use debate over a potential U.S. attack on Syria as a reason to protect the Defense Department from sequestration in 2014.

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Some lawmakers are looking to use debate over a potential U.S. attack on Syria as a reason to protect the Defense Department from sequestration in 2014.

“This would be a great time to fix that,” Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., the House Armed Services Committee chairman, said in a Sept. 2 interview on CNN.

It seems unlikely Congress would include a sequestration fix in the use-of-force authorization the White House has requested to launch a military strike against Syria, but McKeon and others say this is a good example of a potential consequence to national security from tolerating an underfunded military.

Linking a sequestration exemption to the Syria resolution could delay action, especially if lawmakers have an extended debate about what other programs could be exempted from budget cuts if defense is spared.

The cost of the Syria mission, at least as now envisioned, might not be that high. There is discussion of limiting the authorization for missile and bomb attacks for a maximum of 90 days and prohibiting U.S. troops on the ground. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Sept. 4 he expected the cost to be “in the tens of millions of dollars,” although that price tag may not include the cost of cruise missiles or other munitions that might be used. It is unclear how the Pentagon would cover that expense, but the Defense Department rarely receives upfront money to launch operations.

The proposed 90-day limit on authorization — really a 60-day authorization with the possibility of a 30-day extension — responds to concerns about the potential for launching another long, costly war.

“We cannot give the president a blank check,” said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee.

However, not everyone likes that idea. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the Senate Armed Services and Senate Foreign Affairs committees, said he will not support a 90-day limit because it would tie the military’s hands.

Calls to stop the cuts

McKeon has been searching since 2011 for leverage to protect the defense budget, arguing that the Obama administration already has reduced growth in military spending. He has been unsuccessful in gaining wide support for a defense-only exemption to the automatic cuts in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which reduced the 2013 defense budget by $37 billion and threatens to reduce the 2014 budget by an additional $52 billion.

“Our military has had over a trillion dollars cut over the last couple of years and going forward,” he said in the CNN interview, describing the impact over 10 years of the combination of reductions ordered by the White House and the additional defense spending caps that are part of the Budget Control Act.

McKeon said asking the military to take on a Syria mission at a time when the Pentagon is cutting programs seems wrong. Citing the Aug. 30 decision by President Obama to cap the military’s 2014 pay raise at 1 percent, he said the White House appears to be looking out more for the people of Syria than for U.S. troops.

Fixing sequestration, he said, would show the military it won’t continue to be asked to do more with less.

Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has raised similar concerns.

“Whatever is decided upon, it is going to take military resources that are at decreased readiness levels due to a lack of funding,” Inhofe said in a statement. “We have a financial crisis in our military. We have a starving military.”

Three major military-related organizations have appealed to lawmakers to stop sequestration. In a joint letter to congressional leaders, the heads of the Association of the United States Army, the Association of the United States Navy and the Air Force Association ask lawmakers to “work together to solve the problem of sequestration and provide budget certainty for the Department of Defense.”

“Sequestration is creating hollow defense forces with leaders who must try to plan without funding certainty, an Air Force without sufficient flying hours for its squadrons, a Navy that must cancel ship deployments and an Army that cannot send its units to combat training centers,” the joint letter says.

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