Defense Cuts May No Longer Be Political Sacred Cow

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned that the automatic spending cuts due to hit the Pentagon and other branches of government next week will damage U.S. national security.

In a letter to Congress, he said those cuts would put the military on a path toward a "hollow force." But the warnings don't appear to be moving the needle with lawmakers or the American public.

The automatic spending cuts don't officially take effect until March 1, but they are already being felt. As President Obama noted this week, the Navy has decided not to send one of its aircraft carriers on a scheduled deployment to the Persian Gulf.

"As our military leaders have made clear, changes like this — not well-thought through, not phased in properly — changes like this affect our ability to respond to threats in unstable parts of the world," he said.

No Agreed-Upon Path

At one time, idling an aircraft carrier to save money would have been unthinkable. The White House thought that prospect would be so alarming to congressional Republicans that they'd never allow the automatic spending cuts to take effect.

Some Republicans are alarmed. House Speaker John Boehner calls the military cuts "devastating." But Congressional expert Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution says the GOP is no longer united when it comes to protecting the Pentagon.

"There's a defense wing of defense hawks, and they've been pretty vocal about the impact on the Defense Department and national security, generally," she said. "And we know there's a hard-core group as well that's opposed to any and all revenue increases.

"And between the two of those, there's no agreed-upon path of what to do, and so it looks like they may prefer the sequester to any alternative — certainly the alternatives the Democrats are offering up."

Public Unmoved

Obama is trying to enlist the public's help. He did a series of local TV interviews Wednesday, and he's planning to visit a military community outside Washington, D.C., next week. White House spokesman Jay Carney says the idea is to ramp up pressure on lawmakers to suspend the automatic cuts.

"The fact of the matter is, congressional Republicans are going to listen to the American people," Carney said.

But the American people aren't necessarily convinced that cutting the Pentagon budget is a bad idea.

Last year, the Stimson Center in Washington, along with the Center for Public Integrity and the Program for Public Consultation, asked people how they'd like to address the federal deficit: by raising taxes, reducing defense spending or cutting other parts of the government.

Matt Leatherman of the Stimson Center says nearly two-thirds opted for defense cuts.

"Defense spending was an area that respondents seemed to feel especially comfortable with reductions," he said. "There were some partisan splits, but I would point out that both Republicans and Democrats were comfortable reducing the defense budget."

Threat Of Sequestration

Other polls by Gallup, Harris and the Pew Research Center produced similar findings. The Stimson Center survey was unusual in that people taking the poll were given information about the workings of the Pentagon budget.

"The more that Americans learn about their defense budget, the more aware they become that not everything is equal," Leatherman says. "When you have a chance to really grapple with the material on your own, you perhaps feel more comfortable in saying, 'I'm prepared to prioritize this issue and accept more risk over here.' "

Leatherman says that doesn't mean Americans are comfortable with the kind of indiscriminate cuts to defense spending set to take effect next week. But it does suggest the Pentagon is far from a sacred cow.

That could be put to the test if lawmakers can't make a deal to avoid across-the-board cuts. Congressional scholar Binder notes that those cuts were agreed to in 2011 as a way to postpone the pain of political gridlock. Nineteen months later, the gridlock hasn't gone away.

"They set up the can, they kind of set it up to explode, and sure enough, this looks like one of the few times it's actually going to go off," she says.

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