WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday told lawmakers he is willing to go only so far in trimming the Pentagon budget to avoid putting the nation at serious risk.
Testifying before the House Budget Committee, Panetta reiterated what he said to the Senate’s budget panel a day earlier: That he is not ready to slash another $500 billion from the defense budget over the next 10 years.
Those additional reductions — part of a larger $1.2 trillion package of automatic cuts called sequestration — were prompted by the failure of the supercommittee charged with reducing the federal deficit last fall.
Panetta was appearing before the committee to detail his department’s fiscal 2013 budget, which accounts for $487 billion in defense savings in the coming decade.
“If sequester is triggered, this strategy will certainly have to be thrown out the window and the result will be risks that are unacceptably high,” Panetta told lawmakers. “So I really urge you to confront this issue and try to do everything you can to avoid that outcome.”
Speaking in the same room that bears his portrait on the wall, Panetta, who served as the committee’s chairman from 1989 to 1993, added he does not believe the country should have to “choose between fiscal discipline and national security.”
He further challenged lawmakers to put everything on the table while trying to trim the federal deficit, not just balance the budget “on the back of defense spending alone.” Rep. Chris Van Hollen agreed, saying there is now “wide bipartisan consensus” all government spending must be examined.
The Maryland Democrat added that many of his colleagues believe they can dodge sequestration by devising a balanced deficit reduction package.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said he worried the already-deep defense cuts could compromise the country’s safety, even if troops have been drawn down in Afghanistan and pulled out of Iraq.
“It is difficult to square this reality with the president’s steep reductions in both troop levels and funding levels,” Ryan said in his opening remarks. “The timing of these cuts raises serious concerns that decisions are being driven by budgetary concerns as opposed to strategic priorities.”
Ryan admitted Panetta’s budget predicament is probably “due to failures elsewhere in the federal budget,” citing what he called exorbitant health care spending.
Still, the Wisconsin Republican did not cut Panetta any slack.
When Ryan asked Panetta about the impact of a specific fiscal measure, Panetta said “an OMB director” would probably be better suited to answer.
“You can do that, too,” Ryan responded, drawing nervous laughter from the hearing room.
Panetta made his opposition to the sequester cuts clear at Tuesday’s Senate Budget Committee hearing, where he called them “nutty” and overall bad policy.
The defense secretary was accompanied both days by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey. At Tuesday’s hearing, Dempsey warned the United States would lose its reputation as a global power if the $500 billion sequester is piled on top of the already-mandated savings in the next 10 years.