Center for Strategic Communication

Rep. Buck McKeon, center, worries that unless Congress temporarily punts on defense cuts, the military won't have money to buy robots like this one. Photo: Rep. Buck McKeon

Rep. Buck McKeon, the chairman of the House Armed Services committee, absolutely hates cutting the defense budget — especially when the Pentagon gets cut as part of a high-stakes deficit bill that he voted for. That summer 2011 bill was a mistake, the powerful congressman now says, one that he laid at the feet of the congressional leader of his own party. Not only that, but McKeon thinks the Pentagon is telling him a “fib” about how it’ll absorb those huge, imminent budget cuts — and the only option might be to kick the defense-budget can down the road.

“My feeling is, we’ve put ourselves in a very, very bad position,” McKeon told Danger Room during a Thursday breakfast meeting with reporters.

That bad position is known as “sequestration,” a wonky Beltway term for cutting the defense budget by at least $600 billion over the next decade, thanks to 2011′s Budget Control Act. That measure used the threat of huge defense cuts to pressure a Congressional panel to yield a comprehensive deal to shrink the deficit. That panel failed — and McKeon pointed the finger at his own party’s leader for pushing the deal on him in the first place.

“Speaker [John] Boehner came and met with our committee and assured us [last summer] that sequestration was so bad, that it was planned to be so bad that it couldn’t possibly ever happen,” McKeon told Danger Room, referring to his own party’s congressional leader. “And with that, most of the members of the Armed Services Committee did vote for it.”

So it’s Boehner’s fault?

“I think if you talk to Boehner now, he’ll still tell you it is not going to happen,” McKeon answered. “But I think, as I’ve been watching, and my feelings about human nature are pretty hard to expect that we’re going to be able to fix this with everybody sitting on their hands or have their heads in the sand not paying any attention to it. I think Boehner — I can’t tell you exactly what he’s thinking, but what I would think he’s thinking, and hoping, is that there is some plan that they’re able to come together with the president [to pass]. It’s been pretty hard because the president’s been campaigning since — pick a date, I’d say probably Labor Day — and basically things are just, ‘let it go along and we’ll fix everything in the lame-duck session” after the November election.

That’s unrealistic, McKeon thinks. His preferred course of action is to pass a bill exempting the military from sequestration. But his fallback position might indicate a softening of the Hill GOP line as sequestration gets closer and closer to reality.

That position? Punt on implementing the cuts.

“It looks like that’s what we’re going to do anyway, so why don’t we do it now?” McKeon said. That way, Congress wouldn’t have to try to pass a bill kicking sequestration down the road in the days after an acrimonious election — which, after all, might not be possible; and failure would make sequestration a reality. Better to have Congress act to delay sequestration now, and try to find a broader budget fix later.

“Would that happen? I don’t know, but I want to try anything that can bring some sanity to this,” McKeon said.

That position is a bit softer than the standard Republican line that Congress just needs to protect the Pentagon’s budget. To be clear, that’s what McKeon would prefer to do. But since that would place all the mandatory cuts on non-entitlement social spending, President Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and congressional Democrats say McKeon’s bill is a nonstarter.

McKeon even declared himself “willing to look at anything” congressional Democrats might propose to satisfy the Budget Control Act and avert the sequestration scenario. That’s not exactly a declaration that he’d raise taxes to help close the deficit. But it’s at least a minor step away from the no-tax-hikes line that’s at the heart of the congressional impasse.

The Pentagon’s position is that sequestration would be a nightmare, as it already swallowed $487 billion in budget cuts over the next decade. Panetta has called it a “goofy meataxe scenario,” but says, accurately, he’s bound to implement it by law. The Pentagon swears “we are not planning, at this stage, for sequestration,” as chief spokesman George Little reiterated to Danger Room last week.

McKeon doesn’t buy it.

“It’d be nice to assume they always tell us the truth,” McKeon said, “but it’s hard for me to believe that the military people I know would just sit on their hands and not plan for this.” The suspicion is that the Defense Department is saying it won’t plan how to absorb the sequestration cuts in order to pressure Congress to follow through on the budget deal it insisted on passing. “I hope they were just kind of telling us a little fib,” McKeon said.

Which is a good encapsulation of the Washington gridlock on defense cuts heading into the summer before an election. The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee hopes the Pentagon is lying to him about the consequences of a bill he voted for against his every political inclination. And the most realistic way out of those consequences, he thinks, isn’t to solve the problem, it’s to delay paying the cost of failure.

Update, 11 p.m.: This post initially said, erroneously, that sequestration would be split between defense and entitlement spending. That’s wrong. It would be split between defense and non-defense discretionary spending; entitlement spending is exempt. Thanks to reader SD for pointing out my error.