WASHINGTON – A military fighting three wars is staring down budget cuts of up to $850 billion over a decade, some of the deepest reductions since the end of the Cold War.
Yet under the compromise struck by President Barack Obama and congressional leaders to avert the nation's first-ever financial default, the near-term impact on the troops, aircraft, ships and weapons may be far less onerous than Republicans and Democrats fear.
Congress was expected to approve the overall plan to slash more than $2 trillion from federal spending over a decade and permit the nation's $14.3 trillion borrowing cap to rise by up to $2.4 trillion and send it to President Barack Obama for his signature.
Under the compromise, all security spending — money for defense, homeland security, veterans, foreign aid and intelligence — would be cut from the current level of $687 billion this year to $683 billion in next year's budget. Defense would be a share of that $4 billion reduction.
"It's doable, it's workable without adversely affecting readiness or the soldiers," said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees military dollars.
Over a decade, Pentagon spending would be reduced by $350 billion from projected increases. The White House said in a memo circulated Monday that the reductions "will be implemented based on the outcome of a review of our missions, roles and capabilities that will reflect the president's commitment to protecting our national security." The review could be completed by the end of the summer.
The cuts would be the first since after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall in the 1990s.
What unnerves lawmakers is the second element of the compromise. A 12-member, House-Senate committee must propose up to $1.5 trillion more in deficit cuts over a decade and do so by year's end. If it deadlocks or Congress rejects its recommendations, the Obama administration would impose across-the-board spending cuts, and the Pentagon would face some $500 billion more in reductions over 10 years.
"Clearly we don't want to get to the point ... it's going to be bloody," said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
"I understand the nuclear option, it cuts both ways," said another Armed Services member, Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., noting that benefit programs critical to Democrats would be cut as well. "I think the most important thing is to get a strong defense person on the committee."
In the Senate, John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said, "if there were cuts I didn't like, I would go to the floor afterward and fight for the increases I think were needed to preserve our national security.
Members of the House Armed Services Committee met Monday afternoon with Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, pressing for assurances. Boehner said it was the best deal they could get on defense in negotiations with the Senate and the White House.
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the committee, said he would back the compromise, with reservations.
"Our senior military commanders have been unanimous in their concerns that deeper cuts could break the force. I take their position seriously, and the funding levels in this bill won't make their job easier," McKeon said in a statement. "Still, this is the least bad proposal before us."
Last week, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, Obama's choice to be the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate panel that cuts of $800 billion or more "would be extraordinarily difficult and very high-risk." Leaders in the Marine Corps, Air Force, Army and Navy told a House panel that cuts of that magnitude would force them to restructure their respective services and cause problems meeting the demands of commanders in the field.
Defense budgets, not including the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, consistently have gone up in recent years, from just over $370 billion in the late 1990s to around $550 billion today. Tea partyers and fiscal conservatives looking to reduce the nation's debt have argued that military spending should be part of any calculation, with some proposals calling for even deeper cuts.
Conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has called for just over $1 trillion in defense cuts in his "Back in Black" plan, including fewer weapons, fighter jets and personnel. A bipartisan group of six senators envisions reductions of more than $800 billion in 10 years.
The initial division among the ranks of the House Armed Services Committee, with veteran members wary and freshmen members more accepting of the compromise, reflected the changed political climate. Tea partyers and newer members have signaled throughout the year that they are willing to cut defense, once considered sacrosanct, especially with wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
In February, tea party-backed Republicans in the House led the effort to eliminate funds for a second engine for the next-generation F-35 fighter plane.
"We have said from the start, at least some of us have said, everything is on the table. ... I'm putting my money where my mouth is," said freshman Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., a member of the Armed Services Committee.
No matter what the outcome, at least one Republican promised to make it a campaign issue in 2012.
"You can't fight three wars and cut defense the way this president wants to," said freshman Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga.
Associated Press writers Stephen Ohlemacher and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.