By Rachelle Younglai and Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans are struggling to find ways to protect the U.S. military from spending cuts but there is no clear path to do so as the United States strains to rein in its massive budget deficits.
Democratic President Barack Obama has vowed to veto any attempts to undo the $1.2 trillion in automatic budget cuts that go into effect in 2013 after the "super committee" of lawmakers failed to reach a deficit reduction deal this month.
Half of the cuts would hit defense, with the other half spread across the government's domestic programs.
Republicans anxious to safeguard the Pentagon are now looking for other ways of slowing the growth of the country's $15 trillion public debt.
But with no easy options, Republicans face the same problems that stymied the congressional debt panel: how to clear a path to fiscal prosperity without raising taxes and making cuts to programs for the elderly and disabled?
"The same dynamics that prevented a super committee deal - Republican intransigence on revenue and Democratic demands that revenue be used to balance further (spending) cuts - will be in play for any effort to selectively water down the sequester," said Ryan McConaghy, director of the economic program at centrist think tank Third Way.
Sequester refers to the $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts that are due to begin in 2013 since the super committee could not find a better way to cut deficits.
Lawmakers such as Buck McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, have vowed to introduce legislation to kill the military cuts. Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are working on a bill to undo at least some of them.
They have yet to introduce legislation, though, and it is unclear whether their proposals would try to offset the defense cuts with other deficit reduction measures.
Although bills to kill the automatic cuts would have a good chance of passing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Senate Republicans would have to convince 19 Democrats to join them in order to get the 66 votes required to override any veto by Obama.
Tossing out the automatic budget cuts would play badly with financial markets, which are keen to see a commitment on deficit reduction, and would raise the specter of another U.S. debt downgrade. The super committee's failure did not trigger a ratings cut, but one of the big agencies, Fitch Ratings, warned that the United States would have to find a plan to tackle its deficit before 2013 or risk a credit downgrade.
"We need to ensure that we are on a track that is fiscally sustainable. The sequester is to get the $1.2 trillion objective that was necessary to increase the debt limit so we could pay our bills," said Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House.
Hoyer was referring to congressional approval in August of an increase in U.S. borrowing authority that was coupled with assurances of significant spending cuts, including defense.
AMENDING BILLS, PLAYING TO THE PUBLIC
Republicans could try to protect the Pentagon by inserting such language into bills Democrats are keen to pass, such as an extension of the payroll tax cuts. But that strategy is rife with procedural and political problems, the least of which is an Obama veto.
Even if lawmakers were to try to shift cuts around through the budget appropriations process, Congress only appropriates funds one year at a time, leaving nine years of potential military budget cuts in play.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, focused on January 2013, as the best opportunity for changing the makeup of the automatic spending cuts.
He said that once the automatic spending cuts are triggered at the start of 2013, lawmakers can propose alternative ways of achieving the $1.2 trillion in savings and such legislation would not face procedural roadblocks in the Senate that otherwise can stop bills dead in their tracks.
"I'm not for turning the sequester off. I oppose that. I'm for replacing the savings in a way that's smarter," Ryan told Reuters on Wednesday. He added: "There's a very good case this goes too far in defense" spending cuts.
The Pentagon said it expects to cut more than $450 billion from its budget over 10 years as part of this summer's deal to raise the country's debt ceiling.
After the super committee's failure, the military will have to start working on an extra $600 billion in cuts over the same period. Analysts such as Loren Thompson of the Virginia-based Lexington Institute said cuts would translate into job losses at weapons firms in swing states like Pennsylvania. That, he said, could hurt Obama's reelection bid.
Democrats have zeroed in on the defense budget, which has nearly doubled over the past decade to an estimated $671 billion for this fiscal year, dwarfing other departments and consuming a good chunk of the total U.S. budget.
Republicans and other military backers may have an ally in Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who has characterized the potential cuts as devastating, and in states with a large defense industry presence such as Florida and Virginia.
"If you want to look at the election pragmatically, there are a lot of states where the idea of gutting defense would be very unpopular," said Potomac Research policy analyst Greg Valliere.
Already, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and other Republican presidential hopefuls have lashed out against the defense cuts and called Obama as weak on national security. They're hoping to put a chink in what otherwise is a strong Obama record that includes the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden and aggressive pursuit of terrorists.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Tom Ferraro ; editing by Ros Krasny and Cynthia Osterman)