By JOHN T. BENNETT
WASHINGTON — Two influential Senate defense hawks on Thursday stopped short of ruling out that a special House-Senate budget panel can avoid calling for defense cuts.
The emergency fiscal legislation that became law early Thursday morning, averting a debt default and opening a government shutdown, sets up a bicameral panel made up of both chamber’s Budget Committee members. The special panel’s recommendations will be non-binding and are due Dec. 15.
The panel’s four leaders House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., met for the first time Thursday morning in the Capitol.
Ryan and Murray said they are focused on finding “common ground.”
Democrats want to replace all remaining annual defense and domestic sequestration cuts slated to slash planned spending through 2021. Republicans, however, are concerned Democrats will propose doing so with sketchy items that won’t really slash the massive federal deficit.
Against that backdrop, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and veteran SASC member John McCain, R-Ariz., say it will be tough to avoid some level of pending defense cuts even if the House-Senate panel can dramatically lessen the remaining sequestration amount of around $450 billion.
They know that because the annual Pentagon budget will remain above $500 billion each year beyond 2014 even with sequestration, it is a big target for any budget effort that must account for deficit-paring spending caps.
Asked Thursday if some amount of defense cuts can be avoided, McCain said: “I’m not sure.”
“Well, that’s what some of us Republicans and Democrats are meeting about, particularly those who care deeply concerned about the effect on defense,” McCain said. “We’re going to have to look at everything, otherwise, we’re going to see devastating effects.
Levin was more precise, predicting the House-Senate budget committee might be able to find a way to shrink the amount of remaining defense sequestration cuts.
“I think there will be, hopefully,” the SASC chairman said, “a much, much smaller cut not only for defense but the other discretionary programs.”