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Levin and McCain: We have no idea how much debt deal cuts defense

The two heads of the Senate Armed Services Committee told The Cable today that even they have no idea how much the debt ceiling deal will cut from national defense, because the specifics of the cuts are still unknown. Depending on which reports you read today, the bill to raise the debt ceiling and cut ...

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The two heads of the Senate Armed Services Committee told The Cable today that even they have no idea how much the debt ceiling deal will cut from national defense, because the specifics of the cuts are still unknown.

Depending on which reports you read today, the bill to raise the debt ceiling and cut at least $2.1 trillion from the budget over the next decade, is either a huge win for the Pentagon or a dangerous cut to the military budget that will "sap American military might worldwide." The Cable reported yesterday that the White House’s assertion that the bill puts the nation on track to save $350 billion in defense spending over 10 years was just a guess, considering that the bill doesn’t say anything about "defense" cuts. The bill only sets caps on "security" spending, which includes Defense, State, USAID, intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Today, Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ) both told The Cable that the actual effect of the debt deal on the Pentagon will be determined by budget and appropriations lawmakers in both chambers after Congress returns from its one-month summer recess.

"I don’t know where the White House gets the $350 billion number from," said Levin, confirming that the deal only sets caps for the "security" budget and then only for the first two years. Levin said he does expect "significant" cuts to the military budget, but that he has to wait for allocations to come from Senate budget leaders to determine how much the Pentagon will get in fiscal 2012.

When Levin gets that figure, he will then have to rewrite the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill to adjust for the new allocations. He is also waiting for the appropriators to weigh in, he said. And while there’s little chance the Senate will actually pass an appropriations bill before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, it will nevertheless be lawmakers who decide exactly what gets cut and by how much.

"There will be a negative and deep effect on the military if the cuts happen," Levin said, but added that the amount of defense cuts is currently "unknown."

If the new joint committee established to agree on an additional $1.2 trillion of cuts fails to come to terms, the bill mandates that $600 billion in cuts come directly from the "defense" account. But that’s a fight for another day, Levin said.

When asked how much the debt deal cuts the Pentagon budget, McCain said, "I’m not sure."

"There are some reductions but it’s my understanding they were spread out over a number of accounts," he said.

Multiple Hill sources told The Cable that it was House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) who led the push for the cuts to be spread over several "security" accounts, rather than focusing them solely on defense. McKeon convened a meeting of disgruntled committee members Monday morning, and then met with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) on Monday afternoon to urge lawmakers to protect the defense budget.

By spreading the initial cuts over security agencies, defense hawks hope to minimize the impact of any cuts on the Pentagon. Ironically, their strategy hinges on embracing the concept what heretofore has been the Obama administration’s definition of "security," which includes diplomacy, intelligence, veterans affairs, homeland security, and foreign aid. Republicans have traditionally defined "security" as only defense, intelligence, and the Department of Homeland Security.

An administration official told The Cable on Monday that the administration calculates that the bill will save $420 billion over 10 years in overall security spending, with $350 billion of that coming from defense and the rest spread out over other agencies. But the administration official admitted those specifics are not in the bill.

That $420 billion is a replacement for the $400 billion in security spending cuts that Obama called for only a couple of months ago, so military spending expectations in the defense industry probably won’t change much. But there are no details on that plan either, so it’s impossible to know what the effects will be.

Winslow Wheeler, head of the Strauss Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, said that the whole notion of the cuts is misleading anyway, because the numbers are being compared projections that were inaccurate in the first place.

"There will be reductions … but the actual figure is also masked by the fact that the debt deal is compared to a ten year CBO ‘baseline,’ which is [the fiscal] 2011 spending levels adjusted according to arcane rules and inflated by a highly unreliable projection of long term future inflation," he said.

"The debt deal kicks the defense budget can down the road for this and future Congresses. People should not read precision and certainty into a political deal specifically designed to be uncertain and indistinct."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin