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Panetta Arms Foes of Cuts to Defense

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta sent a letter Monday to Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham that outlined potentially “devastating” cuts he contended would be necessary if sequestration occurred.

“If the committee fails to act, sequestration is going to go forward,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) warned Tuesday. “Democrats are not going to take an unfair, unrealistic load directed toward ... domestic discretionary spending and take it away from the military.

“The president says that if it comes about during the next year, he’ll veto it. ... Those who are — who talk about retracting the sequester are wrong and are not living up to the agreement we reached to cut our nation’s deficit last July,” Reid added.

Senior Democratic aides predicted Tuesday that their caucus would be able to block efforts to roll back the defense cuts without a negotiated debt deal. They noted the potential hit on the nation’s credit rating, which has already been downgraded a notch by Standard & Poor’s rating agency, if the trigger is diluted without cutting the deficit somewhere else.

“If you try to mess with the trigger, you are really risking the U.S. credit outlook,” one senior aide said.

And aides said Democrats would be able to credibly make the case that the reason these big defense cuts are looming is because Republicans weren’t willing to increase taxes on the wealthy.

“They own the fallout,” one aide said.

Democrats said they aren’t going to just hand over their leverage for free and will continue to push Republicans to negotiate a deal even if the committee fails, aides said.

Given that there is a whole year before the cuts take place, Congress could have plenty of time to craft a new deal.

The aides also dismissed Panetta’s warnings as typical talk from any Defense secretary. “He’s an advocate for his department, and that’s understood,” one said. “The president takes a more holistic view. ... He isn’t going to be bullied.”

But Republican aides said the pressure would be on Democrats to agree to spending cuts somewhere else, given that Obama’s own Cabinet secretary warned the sequester could risk national security.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) continues to refuse to discuss the possibility of the super committee failing.

“Once you speculate on it, you take away some of the power of the threat of sequestration,” Levin said.

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