Defense Cuts May No Longer Be Political Sacred Cow
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
If the U.S. doesn't change a budget law now in effect, 5,000 border agents will back away from the Mexican border. That news came last week from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the automatic spending cuts will also damage the U.S. military, leading to a hollow force, as he put it. And it's that warning we'll talk about next.
INSKEEP: Democrats had been counting on the fear of military weakness to press Republicans to agree on a budget deal, but so far, it hasn't happened. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The automatic spending cuts don't officially take effect for more than a week, but they're already being felt. As President Obama noted this week, the Navy has decided not to send one of its aircraft carriers on a scheduled deployment to the Persian Gulf.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And as our military leaders have made clear, changes like this - not well thought through, not phased-in properly - changes like this affect our ability to respond to threats in unstable parts of the world.
HORSLEY: At one time, idling an aircraft carrier to save money would have been unthinkable. The White House thought that prospect would be so alarming to congressional Republicans, they'd never allow the automatic spending cuts to take effect. Some Republicans are alarmed. House Speaker John Boehner calls the military cuts devastating. But Congressional expert Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution says the GOP is no longer united when it comes to protecting the Pentagon.
SARAH BINDER: There's a defense wing of defense hawks, and they've been pretty vocal about the impact on the Defense Department and on national security, generally. And we know there's a hard-core group, as well, that's opposed to any and all revenue increases. And between the two of those, there's no agreed-upon path of what to do. And so it looks like they may prefer the sequester to any alternative - certainly the alternatives that the Democrats are offering up.
HORSLEY: The president's now trying to enlist the public's help. Obama did a series of local TV interviews yesterday, and he's planning to visit a military community outside Washington next week. White House spokesman Jay Carney says the idea is to ramp up pressure on lawmakers to suspend the automatic cuts.
JAY CARNEY: The fact of the matter is congressional Republicans are going to listen to the American people.
HORSLEY: But the American people aren't necessarily convinced cutting the Pentagon budget is a bad idea. Last year, the Stimson Center in Washington - along with the Center for Public Integrity and the Program for Public Consultation - asked people how they'd like to address the federal deficit: by raising taxes, reducing defense spending or cutting other parts of the government. Matt Leatherman of the Stimson Center says nearly two-thirds opted for defense cuts.
MATT LEATHERMAN: Defense spending was an area that respondents seemed to feel especially comfortable with reductions. There were some partisan splits, but I would point out that both Republicans and Democrats were comfortable reducing the defense budget.
HORSLEY: Other polls by Gallup, Harris and the Pew Research Center produced similar findings. The Stimson Center survey was unusual in that people taking the poll were given a lot of information about the workings of the Pentagon budget.
LEATHERMAN: The more that Americans learn about their defense budget, the more aware they've become that not everything is equal. When you have a chance to really grapple with the material on your own, you perhaps feel more comfortable in saying: I'm prepared to prioritize this issue and accept risk over here.
HORSLEY: Leatherman says that doesn't mean Americans are comfortable with the kind of indiscriminate cuts to defense spending set to take effect next week. But it does suggest the Pentagon is far from a sacred cow. That could be put to the test if lawmakers can't make a deal to avoid across-the-board cuts. Congressional scholar Binder notes those cuts were agreed to back in 2011 as a way to postpone the pain of political gridlock. Nineteen months later, the gridlock hasn't gone away.
BINDER: They set up the can. They kind of set it up to explode, and sure enough, this is one of those few times it looks like it's actually going to go off.
HORSLEY: So far, without much complaint from the American public. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.