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Panetta Arms Foes of Cuts to Defense

Defense Secretary Says Deficit Panel Failure Will Have Grave Effects

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.

A dire warning from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta about the consequences for the military if the super committee fails could come back to haunt the White House — and Congressional Democrats.

A Monday letter from Panetta to GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) outlined a litany of cuts he contended would be necessary if $600 billion in automatic cuts to defense spending is triggered by the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction’s inability to find an alternative way to shave $1.2 trillion from the deficit.

Panetta called the potential cuts “devastating” and warned that they could result in “the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest Air Force in its history.”

While his warning might help spur the super committee to reach a deal and provide cover for lawmakers to vote for one, a failure by the panel could put his boss — President Barack Obama — and Congressional Democrats in a tough spot.

“I hope it focuses everybody’s attention, yeah, on both sides,” super committee member Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said.

If the committee fails, the letter will be waved like a bloody shirt by Republicans looking to block the cuts regardless of the consequences to the deficit.

Graham predicted Tuesday that Obama and Democrats would not be able to credibly block efforts to remove the trigger given the dire consequences Panetta predicted.

“I hope the president will look at Leon’s letter,” Graham said. “It was a devastating analysis of what would happen to this country if we pulled this sequester trigger. ... There is a definite disconnect there. ... I hope the president, I hope he’d read the letter and say, ‘You’re right, this is a bad idea’. ... This was the most ill-conceived idea I can imagine.”

Graham said he hopes the super committee gets a result for the good of the country, but that if it doesn’t, the trigger should be replaced with something that doesn’t cut defense.

McCain, meanwhile, thanked Panetta.

“Your letter, I hope, is read by every Member of Congress and every citizen of this country because we cannot put our nation’s national security at risk,” McCain said at an Armed Services hearing Tuesday at which Panetta testified.

Democratic leaders and the White House, however, have so far talked tough about maintaining the trigger, with Obama himself warning the super committee co-chairmen in phone calls Friday that he would not accept efforts to partially roll it back.

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