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Congressman: Defense sequester exemption to be part of debt ceiling debate

Sep. 13, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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Defense hawks in the House of Representatives will try exempt the Defense Department from additional sequestration with a rider attached to must-pass legislation that would raise the nation’s $16.7 trillion debt ceiling, according to a key Republican

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness panel, said in an interview taped for C-SPAN’s Newsmakers program that he will be part of an effort that would exempt the Defense Department from sequestration beginning with the 2014 budget.

Wittman and other members of the House Armed Services Committee are trying to sell their colleagues on the need to avoid the $52 billion a year cuts facing the military if Congress and the White House cannot reach agreement on a budget and spending plan. Exemption, he said, is required to avoid a “precipitous drop-off in readiness.”

The exemption would apply only to the Defense Department, not to other federal agencies or programs, and potentially could include restoring the $37 billion in across-the-board sequestration cuts made in the fiscal 2013 budget.

Wittman conceded that while the idea is popular among armed services committee Republicans, other GOP members oppose exempting the Defense Department from sequestration. But he said he and other defense hawks are trying to make the case that national security would be harmed by allowing additional reductions.

The debt ceiling legislation was not the first choice as a vehicle for sequester exemption legislation, Wittman said. Defense hawks had hoped to include the protection as part of a government funding bill, known as a continuing resolution, that Congress needs to pass to avoid an Oct. 1 government shutdown, but House Republican leaders balked at that idea.

Still, they have another fast-track bill because the government potentially runs out of borrowing power in mid-October, forcing the Treasury Department to rely on a modest $50 billion in cash reserves and any incoming revenue to pay bills. The nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Group estimates the U.S. will face a cash-flow crisis no early than Oct. 18 and no later than Nov. 5, with only enough money to pay about one-third of its bills.

Wittman opposes the use of U.S. military force against Syria, and money is part of the reason. While he believes the military is capable of carrying out the strikes against Syria targets under Defense Department contingency plans, he is concerned the military would have difficulty because of budget reductions in carrying out the sustained military operations that might be required if there are retaliatory attacks against the U.S. or its national interests.

Wittman is serving in his fourth term in Congress and is in his first year as chairman of the armed services committee’s readiness panel. His congressional district includes Marine Corps Base Quantico, Fort A.P. Hill, Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren and Naval Weapons Station Yorktown.

The interview will air Sunday on C-SPAN at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Eastern.

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