By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged Congress on Friday to act soon to stop a new round of defense budget reductions next year, saying the threat of $500 billion more in cuts leaves military families and defense workers under a cloud of uncertainty.
"Congress can't keep kicking the can down the road or avoiding dealing with the debt and deficit problems that we face," Panetta told a news conference. "The men and women of this department and their families need to know with certainty that we will meet our commitments to them and to their families."
Panetta's remarks come at a time of renewed focus on the looming across-the-board defense cuts, which would be carried out under a process known as "sequestration." Industry officials met with House Democrats to discuss the cuts on Thursday and held talks with Panetta at the Pentagon on Tuesday.
Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said this month that several different groups of lawmakers were holding talks on how to deal with the threat of sequestration. Some lawmakers are pushing to delay the cuts by up to a year, well beyond the November election.
Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives on Friday accused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, of blocking efforts to halt the new round of cuts due to go into force on January 2. They urged him to "put forward your own plan or stop obstructing plans others have already offered."
"Further cuts to the military don't affect some faceless bureaucracy," Republicans from the House Armed Services Committee said in a letter to Reid. "The White House has determined that sequestration will arbitrarily gut the funding to our troops who are putting their lives on the line."
The Pentagon has said that unless Congress acts to change the law, it will have to implement the cuts on January 2 by slashing all programs by the percentage needed to bring about the required spending reduction, regardless of strategic need.
The potential new budget cuts come at a time when the Defense Department is already reducing projected spending by $487 billion over 10 years as required by the Budget Control Act passed by Congress last year. The act was an attempt to curb the government's trillion-dollar deficits.
NO ALTERNATIVE DEAL
The cuts under sequestration were included in the act as part of an effort to encourage Republican and Democratic lawmakers to reach an alternative deal to cut spending by more than $1 trillion. But they failed to achieve a compromise and now the cuts are due to go into force.
Panetta and senior military commanders have warned that a new round of spending reductions under sequestration would be devastating to the military and would force the Pentagon to abandon the new strategy adopted in January as part of the budgeting process.
But some analysts point out that the cuts being implemented come after a decade of rising defense spending and are far smaller proportionally than during previous military drawdowns.
They predict defense spending eventually will be reduced by several hundred billion dollars more, with or without sequestration.
Industry leaders who met with Panetta this week warned that the Pentagon could face billions of dollars in contract termination fees and other costs when the new cuts go into force next year. Panetta said the industry executives shared many of the Pentagons fears about the cuts.
"They're very concerned about the impact that it will have on their companies and on their employees," Panetta told the news conference.
He noted that company executives faced legal requirements to notify their employees about possible terminations, letters that would have to go out just days before the November elections.
"Both the companies as well as the Defenses Department are making very clear to Capitol Hill that this is a matter that ought not to be postponed, that it ought to be dealt with soon so that sequester ... will not happen," Panetta said.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Mohammad Zargham)