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Washington - Top Defense Department officials cautioned Thursday that so-called sequestration could lead to a hollow military and warned that the across-the-board federal budget cuts due to take place on Jan. 2 would mean decreased training, pay and preparedness for the nation's armed forces.
Their comments came during a two-hour hearing held by the House Armed Services Committee to discuss the potential impact on defense preparedness of the automatic budget reductions - which will occur if Congress does not pass a bill to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next decade.
Sequestration would result in "a less-capable, less-modern, less-ready force," according to a joint statement by the DOD officials who addressed the committee.
Under the terms of the 2011 legislative deal that allowed for an increase in the federal debt ceiling, nearly $110 billion in cuts - split evenly between defense and non-defense domestic programs - would take place within the next year under sequestration. Over the next decade, sequestration would mean an approximately $600 billion reduction in defense spending alone.
Admiral Mark Ferguson said that, overall, sequestration would "reduce funding for the Navy by nearly $12 billion" in 2013, causing an immediate negative impact on operations and maintenance.
While the Coast Guard was not represented at Thursday's hearing, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., pointed out that the "folks in New London would be hit, too"- referring to both Coast Guard Station New London, which responds to 1,300 marine distress cases annually, and the Coast Guard Academy, which enrolls 1,046 cadets on full scholarship.
Reflecting the position taken by the White House in a report on the impact of sequestration released late last week, Undersecretary of Defense Robert Hale repeatedly reminded the committee that DOD would rather avoid sequestration altogether than discuss how to minimize its effects.
"If you're driving at (a) brick wall at 60 miles an hour, you need to avoid the wall, not pick up the pieces after you hit it," Hale said.
To that end, the two-hour session witnessed calls from both sides of the political aisle for a compromise to avoid the impact of sequestration, even though there has been little, if any, progress toward reaching a solution on which both parties could agree.
The House is scheduled to vote today on a motion to adjourn until after the November election. Several members of the committee declared that they planned to vote against the motion in the hope of making progress toward heading off sequestration.
"I just hope, frankly, that the motion to adjourn is going to fail," said Courtney, who represents Connecticut's 2nd District. "I personally believe that there is still a (political) center in this place which is ready to roll up its sleeves and find a path between the two sides."
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, said it is Congress' responsibility to prevent a sequester. "I can't help but tell my colleagues in Congress to look in the mirror - we did this, we passed this idiotic law," he told his colleagues on the Armed Services panel. "We as a Congress have to accept the responsibility, we have to find a way to solve it, and we shouldn't be asking the generals that are here for a solution. ... It's up to us."
Other attendees pointed the finger elsewhere. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., said that while "the House of Representatives in this Congress (has) passed five different measures to avoid sequestration, neither the president nor the Senate have shown any leadership."
Should the United States topple over the "fiscal cliff" - the current Washington buzzword for sequestration - Hale said the military is prepared to develop detailed plans to deal with it. But the Pentagon "will wait as long as we can to begin this process," he said.