Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday blasted the "gimmick" congressional leaders used to keep Pentagon spending from falling under mandatory budget caps, but broke with his successor by saying he would take the money "because what's my alternative?"

"My approach when I was secretary was to take every dollar I could get wherever I could get it," Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee in his first appearance before the panel since leaving office in July 2011. "In the current paralyzed state, maybe there's no alternative to getting the money this way."

Gates was called as the first witness in a series of hearings that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., hopes will lay the groundwork for a comprehensive overhaul of Pentagon operations as defense budgets shrink and the military's global responsibilities don't.

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But the conversation quickly turned to the long-running partisan dispute over federal spending that has snared the Pentagon in a vicious cycle of mandatory cuts and constant uncertainty.

President Obama and majorities of Democrats and Republicans in Congress agree that the sequestration process imposed on defense spending by the Budget Control Act of 2011 needs to be reversed, but they can't agree on how to do it.

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