October 14th, 2011
11:15 AM ET
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s claim Thursday that President Obama objects to further defense cuts has Republicans demanding to know if the president is really taking the Pentagon’s budget “off the table” when it comes to negotiating further cuts in federal spending.
If so, it could put the president at odds with members of his own party that believe further cuts in the Pentagon budget are warranted.
After promising to increase budgetary transparency at the Pentagon, Panetta fielded a question from Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, on whether he favored additional cuts to defense spending beyond the $450-billion in cuts that are already in the works.
“Correct,” answered Panetta.
“Does the president share your view on that,” Thornberry asked.
“He does,” said Panetta.
The only problem is that if the president does share Panetta’s view on future cuts to defense spending, he has yet to come forward and publicly say so.
As recently as August 17, while fielding questions from voters at a town-hall meeting in Atkinson, Illinois while on a bust tour of the Midwest, President Obama laid out his feelings on how best to address the growing budget deficit.
“If we're going to do it, let's go ahead and fix it,” the president said. “And if we're going to fix it, the only way I believe to do it in a sensible way is you've got to have everything on table. You can't take things off the table.”
And while answering a question about the debt ceiling debate at a Twitter town hall on July 6, the president specifically said, “We need to reduce defense spending.” Now, the White House has been clear that the president will not support any cuts to defense spending that would “harm our national security,” but it has yet to specify what cuts to defense spending the president could support that would fall into the ‘harmless’ category.
When asked to comment on Panetta’s testimony, a senior White House official reiterated that while Congress must make “prudent” cuts to the defense budget, the president has concerns about the effect “ill-advised” cuts would have on our military readiness and national security. The official also highlighted the president’s opposition to the sequestration option included in the debt ceiling compromise as evidence that the president favors smart cuts rather than across the board reductions.
A conflict then still remains between what Panetta said today and what the president has said publicly. While the president has said that he is opposed to cuts that harm security, Panetta said today that he believes any further cuts beyond the $450 billion in cuts already required of the Defense Department will be harmful.
“I think we agree that, as tough as it is, it's manageable,” Panetta said of the initial round of cuts. “We can do this in a way that protects our force for the future. But it's going to take us to the edge. And if suddenly on top of that we face additional cuts, or if the sequester goes into effect and it doubles the number of cuts, then it'll truly devastate our national defense.”
Whether Obama agrees with Panetta is unclear. But Republicans are pouncing on the opening and demanding that the president speak publicly about his position.
“Because as commander in chief, if he believes not another dime in defense ought to be cut, that is something that we all ought to pay attention to, including and maybe especially members of his own party,” Thornberry said after the hearing Thursday.