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By David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top Republican lawmaker on defense issues on Friday rejected Pentagon chief Leon Panetta's criticism of budget maneuvering in Congress, underscoring the difficulty of finding a compromise on security spending at a time of sharp political polarization.

Representative Buck McKeon, chairman of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, told Panetta in a letter that he was "clearly operating under some misconceptions" about a defense policy bill passed this week that authorized $554 billion in defense spending for the 2013 fiscal year.

McKeon said the House panel added nearly $4 billion in additional funding to the Pentagon's budget request because Panetta told them spending cuts ordered by Congress had taken the Defense Department "right to the razor's edge."

McKeon's letter came a day after Panetta warned at a news conference that efforts to protect the defense budget at the expense of other programs was likely to create gridlock in Congress that could block efforts to avert a big automatic cut in the defense budget in January.

The Pentagon currently is under orders to trim $487 billion from projected defense spending over the next decade as President Barack Obama's administration attempts to curb its trillion-dollar budget deficits.

Under a measure approved by Congress last year, the Pentagon is facing an additional $500 billion in automatic cuts over a decade beginning in January under a process known as sequestration. The cuts are being imposed because Congress failed to agree on other measures to reduce federal spending.

Lawmakers are headed toward a confrontation over the across-the-board cuts. Republicans hope to avert them by reducing spending on social programs. Democrats say that while some cuts are necessary, new tax revenues also are needed, a move rejected by Republicans.

GRIDLOCK WARNING

Panetta's warning about gridlock came after the House passed a Republican measure to block the automatic cuts by trimming social safety net programs instead, setting up a confrontation over spending priorities with the Democratic-controlled Senate.

"By taking these funds from the poor, middle-class Americans, homeowners and other vulnerable parts of our American constituencies, the guaranteed results will be confrontation, gridlock and a greater likelihood of sequester," Panetta said.

He also said the Pentagon budget sent to Congress was finely balanced, eliminating some programs or weapons systems in order to have the funds needed to proceed with critical priorities.

Panetta said because of budget spending caps imposed by Congress last year, efforts to add funding to the Pentagon budget or save lawmakers' "pet projects" would ultimately force the Defense Department to reduce spending in areas it considered more critical.

"There's no free lunch here," Panetta told the news conference. "Every dollar that is added will have to be offset by cuts in national security."

McKeon flatly rejected that statement.

"You asserted that every dollar added to the defense authorization will come at the expense of another critical national security program," McKeon said. "This is false."

He said in the budget, House Republicans were careful to balance increases in the defense budget with cuts to other programs outside defense, evidently referring to the cuts in social programs approved by the House.

McKeon also rejected Panetta's comment about "pet projects," saying the spending added back by the House was all "designed to resolve the critical vulnerabilities left by the president's new budget."

(Editing by Eric Beech)

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