Sens. John McCain (left) and Lindsey Graham have requested a detailed report from the Pentagon about the potential effects of large defense cuts on the U.S. military.
Despite the rise in calls to reverse deep defense cuts that will be triggered if the super committee fails to reach a deficit-cutting agreement, the actual chance of rolling them back is slim, according to a wide range of sources across the Capitol.
Nearly $500 billion in defense cuts will kick in starting in 2013 if the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction does not produce at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions by Nov. 23, and many Members have argued they would be a tough pill to swallow for American military forces. And Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned of sequestration's consequences in back-to-back classified briefings with Senators and Representatives last week, and Army Chief of Staff Ray Ordierno, who testified before the House Armed Services Committee last Wednesday, did the same.
Concerned GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) sent a letter to the Pentagon on Thursday night requesting a detailed report of the impacts the cuts might have on national security, and they are working on fallback legislation to repeal and perhaps replace the defense cuts.
But all the commotion surrounding the painful cuts — which were designed as an incentive to force the super committee to act — likely will not produce a change to the policy that was enacted as part of a broader deal to increase the debt limit in August.
Even Republican leadership sources suggested that getting another bill affecting the federal budget through the House would be difficult, especially if it adds more to the deficit by not being offset. These same sources concede there is not much left in the domestic discretionary spending pot to cut.
And Democrats almost certainly will not agree to replace the defense spending savings with cuts to mandatory programs such as Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security.
Moreover, if legislation rolling back the cuts were to clear Congress, it is unlikely President Barack Obama would sign it.
Republicans have said they believe fighting to roll back the cuts would be a good message in an election year, cementing their party's place as the protectors of the military and national security. But this position now stands in contrast to the GOP's goal of deficit reduction — and that's a point Democrats are prepared to hammer home if Republicans push forward with repeal.
"In the end, you can only have a military you can afford, and if the Congress makes a decision that it can't cut spending the way the [Budget] Control Act provided in the super committee, then the sequester is the fallback and the sequester should happen," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said in a brief interview late last week.
Kirk, who said he is talking informally to McCain, put a high priority on the credit rating of the U.S. government.
"If you cripple the super committee, you'll lose the AAA credit rating of the United States, and if you obviated the sequester, you risk a further collapse in the credit of the United States, and you can well imagine a future where interest rates are at Jimmy Carter levels within a very short time," Kirk warned.
Graham sees the landscape differently: "We're not going to destroy the military because of a ratings agency."
McCain and Graham said they are not yet working with Senate leadership on their alternative, and it would be very difficult for leaders who agreed to the original deficit reduction plan in August to go back on their word.
In a roundtable with reporters late last week, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) dismissed the idea that Congress could get rid of the trigger, saying he feels bound to the plans for sequestration to which the House, the Senate and Obama agreed.
"Me, personally? Yes, I would feel bound. It was part of the agreement. And so either we succeed or we're in the sequester. The sequester is ugly. Why? Because we didn't want anybody to go there. That's why we have to succeed," Boehner said.
It's the depth of the "ugliness" that has increased the level of chatter about repealing the sequester in the first place.
"Cuts of this magnitude would be catastrophic to the military, and in the case of the Army would significantly reduce our capability and capacity to assure our partners abroad, respond to crisis, and deter our potential adversaries, while threatening the readiness and potentially the all-volunteer force," Ordierno told the House Armed Services Committee last week.
But perhaps no one has brought more attention to the idea of rolling back the defense cuts than Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who sits on the super committee. Kyl has said repeatedly he would fight the cuts and has brought up the topic of defense in several open super committee hearings, including a Sept. 13 session in which he asked the Congressional Budget Office director whether defense cuts would risk unemployment in security industries and therefore "delay economic recovery." The budget chief said, "Yes."
Former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, a co-chairman of the president's deficit commission, told the super committee last week that rolling back the defense cuts would "be disastrous. I think people would look at this country and say, 'You guys can't govern.' ... They would think that we were on our way to becoming a second-rate power."
Given the vacuum being created by the super committee and its impasse yet again over taxes, Democrats in Congress were upset that Republicans have begun talking so openly about repeal, as if assuming failure.
"There seems to be a growing chorus on their side to roll back the trigger, which implies they're giving up prematurely and anticipating failure," said one Democratic aide. "It's playing with fire to try to claw back cuts we've already agreed to."