Obama administration officials warned Wednesday of dire consequences for the U.S. military if Congress cannot avert scheduled spending cuts, even as Republican lawmakers charged that President Obama has gone AWOL on the issue.
During another day in Washington marked by officials talking past one another, the Obama administration unveiled new details about the potential impact of roughly $110 billion in across-the-board cuts starting Jan. 2. Half would be to the defense budget.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and the White House's acting budget chief, Jeff Zients, warned in a hearing that the Navy would be forced to purchase fewer ships and soldiers going to war would receive less training.
That approach "is a blunt, indiscriminate instrument designed to force congressional action on achieving a balanced deficit reduction plan," Zients told the House Armed Services Committee. "It is not the responsible way for our nation to achieve deficit reduction."
But just as in the concurrent debate over the expiring Bush-era tax rates, officials have not announced any compromise plan to avert the automatic cuts. In place of negotiations has been a robust round of finger-pointing.
Republicans say Obama should intervene and bring both sides together on a deal, but they say he instead is distracted by campaigning. Democrats say Republicans share in the blame since they endorsed the automatic cuts in the first place and are conveniently ignoring that fact -- the cuts were triggered after Congress failed to agree to a broad deficit-reduction plan last year.
Meanwhile, Republicans have hammered the administration for allegedly trying to "hide the ball" and make the cuts seem less devastating than they are.
Republicans point to two moves by the administration this week. First, the Labor Department advised federal contractors, including defense firms, that they don't have to warn workers about potential layoffs from the cuts -- though a law called the WARN Act mandates such notices go out 60 days in advance, which if followed would happen just before Election Day.
Then the White House budget office said the president would spare military personnel from the automatic cuts.
After the announcement, Republican senators accused the administration of "flailing around" in an attempt to make the massive cut "look less devastating than it actually is."
Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New York said that even if manpower is exempted, the Pentagon would have to find the savings in "training, maintenance and modernization."
"We believe the effect of such cuts will be a 'hollow force' as occurred after the Vietnam War," they said in a statement.
Carter said military personnel would be exempt from the automatic cuts, but every other military account would be affected, from weapons to the number of hours commissaries operate.
"Some later-deploying units (including some deploying to Afghanistan) could receive less training, especially in the Army and Marine Corps," Carter said. "Under some circumstances, this reduced training could impact their ability to respond to a new contingency, should one occur."
Compromise, however, seems highly unlikely before the November election as the issue is caught up in the political fight over taxes and spending. Democrats insist any plan to spare the military include tax increases on high-wage earners; Republicans reject any plan that calls for higher taxes.
Twenty-two Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee, including the chairman, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, and 18 Democrats originally voted to allow the cuts. Thirteen committee Republicans and seven Democrats, including ranking member Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, opposed them.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.