WASHINGTON (AP) — Senior Pentagon leaders offered a sober assessment Thursday of the impact of automatic spending cuts on the military, arguing that they are embarrassing and unsafe for the United States while imploring a stymied Congress to stop them.
Defense hawks on the House Armed Services Committee joined in the hand-wringing over the reductions although many of the lawmakers voted two years ago for the budget law that set the cuts in motion and have consistently resisted Pentagon cost-saving proposals such as closing domestic military bases and raising health care fees.
The hearing with Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, represented a Washington version of "Groundhog Day" — defense officials sounding the alarm, lawmakers bemoaning the effect and nearly all agreeing that no resolution was in sight.
"I would love to see it fixed, but I don't see it fixed. I don't see the will to get it fixed," Armed Services Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., told reporters after the hearing. "I think it's a huge game of chicken with tremendous consequences."
Across the Capitol, senators were even more blunt as they voted for a nearly $600 billion defense spending bill for fiscal year 2014 that ignores the limits of the spending cuts.
"We screwed ourselves here," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "And somebody in this body on the Republican and Democratic sides need to find a way to work with our president to undo this. Not just for sequestration sake, but for the long-term interests of the country."
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel presented the worst-case scenario for the U.S. military if the Pentagon is forced to slash more than $50 billion from the 2014 budget and half a trillion over 10 years as a result of congressionally mandated cuts.
The reductions would come on top of $487 billion that President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans agreed to in August 2011.
Among the dire prospects, the Navy would drop from 11 carrier strike groups to eight or nine, the lowest number since World War II. The Army would be at levels not seen since 1940, with cuts of more than 100,000 additional soldiers.
The service is already planning to go from a wartime high of about 570,000 to 490,000 soldiers by 2017. The current plan to reduce the size of the Marine Corps to 182,000 from a high of about 205,000 could also be changed, cutting it to as few as 150,000 Marines.
The Air Force could lose as many as five combat air squadrons as well as a number of other bomber and cargo aircraft.
"We know the world's watching. It's embarrassing and unsafe to be in the situation we are in, which is scrambling in this way," Carter told the committee.
Winnefeld said the budget uncertainty has left the military in a "strategic no-man's land." In the first years of the cuts, the Pentagon will "grab money wherever we can, mostly out of the modernization and readiness accounts, which is particularly disruptive to our ability to defend this nation."
Carter said that if there were some money left over at the end of the fiscal year from spending on the war in Afghanistan, the Pentagon would apply it to maintenance and try to reduce furloughs of civilian employees.
A bitterly divided Congress has shown little inclination to reverse the automatic cuts, with deficit-hawks maintaining the upper hand.
"This is not a foreign threat. This is a self-inflicted wound. And Congress needs to behave much, much better when it comes to funding our military priorities," said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., who introduced a bill with Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to at least give the Pentagon more flexibility with its money.
Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee displayed the depth of the divide preventing a solution to protect the Pentagon from billions of dollars in automatic budget cuts.
Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the panel's top Republican, voted against the bill because the total is nearly $19 billion above the caps for defense spending put in place by the 2011 budget law. When the defense bill is combined with other appropriations bills for 2014, the total grows to $91 billion more than current law permits, he said.
"I have opposed every bill that this committee has reported this year, not because they have no merit, but because I cannot support a top line $91 billion above the level at which across-the-board cuts will kick in," Shelby said.
But Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the committee's chairwoman, defended the higher levels on the grounds that sequestration will be replaced by a balanced, bipartisan plan for dealing with the deficit.
"This isn't a disagreement about whether we should have across-the-board cuts," Mikulski said. "Nobody thinks across-the-board cuts are smart. This is a disagreement about how much we will invest in America — our infrastructure, our people, our national security."
Another no vote on the defense bill came from Graham, who said his opposition was aimed at calling attention to the untenable position Congress and the White House find themselves in.
"How do we proceed forward? We're stuck," he said.
The cuts stem from a law enacted two years ago that ordered the government to come up with $1.2 trillion in savings over a decade. The law included the threat of annual automatic cuts as a way of forcing lawmakers to reach a deficit-reduction deal, but they have been unable to do so.
As a result, come January, the Pentagon faces a cut of $54 billion from current spending, according to calculations by Capitol Hill budget aides. The base budget must be trimmed to $498 billion, with cuts of about 4 percent, hitting already reduced spending on defense, nuclear weapons and military construction.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor and Robert Burns contributed to this report.