Defense fades from fiscal cliff debate

Focus on sequester cuts to Pentagon falls out of the dis

Defense has fallen further out of the sequestration and fiscal cliff conversation on Capitol Hill since lawmakers and the White House rush to beat the Dec. 31 deadline to avoid massive cuts across the federal budget.

Pentagon leaders and defense industry executives have raised their voices and banged their fists to try and grab the attention of anyone who would listen to describe the devastation that sequester cuts would bring to the defense budget. Generals cringe at the idea of an across-the-board 10 percent cut to the Defense Department should Congress not agree to a deficit reduction plan in time.

Inside the defense bubble, it didn’t seem possible for a $500 billion cut to the defense budget to be ignored. Yet, a month out from the deadline and the military rarely gets brought up in the discussion. In fact, Republicans and Democrats have not ruled out additional defense cuts under the $500 billion stipulated in sequestration legislation could find its way into the compromise being hammered out on Capitol Hill, Defense News’ John Bennett reported Wednesday.

Taxes have held the spotlight as the Democrats and Republicans dance around the terms “rate” and ” revenue.” Meanwhile, Bennett writes: “The absence of talk about the defense cuts is a sign that further Pentagon budget reductions, at some level below $500 billion, are on the table.”

Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, has said that a proposal to cut the Pentagon by $100 billion, instead of $500 billion, as proposed by Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has gained traction within the fiscal cliff debate.

Parts of these cuts could be folded into the defense budget starting with the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act. Portions of the $487 billion in cuts already accepted by the Defense Department exist in the 2013 NDAA, but that has yet to be approved by Congress and signed off on by the president.

Sen. John McCain said Congress will likely start to tackle the 2013 defense budget on Wednesday. However, he said the fiscal cliff negotiations could further delay that work.

In a further slap to the defense sector, President Obama did not include a major defense company’s CEO in the group of CEOs he planned to meet with Wednesday afternoon. Joe Echeverria, CEO of Deloitte, did make the cut, but his company that does dabble with the defense sector also consults for a wide swath of businesses outside the military.

Macy’s and Yahoo got the nod. Lockheed Martin did  not.

Nora Bensahel, a foreign policy expert and military strategist for the Center for a New American Security, had warned before the lame duck session began in earnest on Monday that the Pentagon would sit on the sidelines as lawmakers wrangled over taxes and entitlements. She explained that it’s merely a dollars and cents proposition.

“The total dollars at stake are more than nine times larger than the defense sequestration cuts,” according to a CNAS report she helped write.