Republicans Poised to Unravel Mandatory Defense Cuts

A group of Republican senators are set to announce Wednesday a concerted effort to unwind the effects of the mandatory defense spending cuts, part of what is known as the "sequestration," set to go into effect in 2013, a byproduct of failed negotiations of the joint congressional super committee charged under the original debt ceiling agreement with finding at least $1.2 billion in deficit reduction.

Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte plan to announce a concerted effort to find offsets for the roughly $600 billion in defense cuts embedded in the Budget Control Act compromise which raised the nation's debt ceiling earlier this year, a move the Pentagon has said would devastate the U.S. military.

Graham has been working on legislation practically from the moment the super committee failed, if not before. But it is sure to be an exceedingly difficult task. Finding offsets has become something of an Olympic sport in Congress these days, with lawmakers constantly fretting about the scarcity of items to cut, particularly since many are loathe to take a knife to big ticket items, like mandatory health spending programs, and discretionary spending accounts have been thinned significantly.

"We're going to do legislation, no doubt," Ayotte told Fox. "But we're not going to just pass the buck on this. We're going to come up with our own version of how you can come up with the spending reductions."

And the senators have a powerful ally at the Pentagon.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has sounded the alarm numerous times, arguing that cuts this deep would "lead to a hollow force." At a mid-November DOD briefing, the former Clinton Administration budget guru sternly warned, "It's a ship without sailors. It's a brigade without bullets. It's an air wing without enough trained pilots. It's a paper tiger. An Army of barracks, buildings and bombs without enough trained soldiers able to accomplish the mission. It's a force that suffers low morale, poor readiness, and is unable to keep up with potential adversaries. In effect, it invites aggression."

Democratic leaders, by and large, oppose the effort to unravel the defense sequester, which was triggered by Congress' inability to find common ground on spending cuts and revenue increases. And Democratic leadership aides have said the defense cuts, when spread out over 10 years, are merely a fraction of DOD's overall budget, essentially about $55 billion a year.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., issued a statement after the super committee flop, saying, "The sequester was designed to be painful, and it is. But that is the commitment to fiscal responsibility that both parties made to the American people. In the absence of a balanced plan that would reduce the deficit by at least as much, I will oppose any efforts to change or roll back the sequester."

So far, no such "balanced plan" has materialized.

A similar set of mandatory cuts will hit a number of Democratic sacred cows, like education and healthcare. As yet, there appears to be no similar effort afoot to scrap those cuts.

But Republicans are determined that DOD will not take the hit.

Across the Capitol, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., has also vowed that he "will not let these sequestration cuts stand" and has said he will soon introduce legislation to that effect. One thing is certain, the fight over defense funds will carry into a hotly-contested election. What happens then is anyone's guess.