WASHINGTON (AP) - Warfighters heading to Afghanistan would receive less training while the Navy would be forced to buy fewer ships if lawmakers fail in the next five months to come up with an alternative deficit-reduction plan, a Pentagon official said Wednesday.
Imploring Congress to act, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and the White House's acting budget chief, Jeff Zients, outlined the devastating effect on defense and domestic programs if $110 billion in across-the-board reductions begin on Jan. 2.
That approach "is a blunt, indiscriminate instrument designed to force congressional action on achieving a balanced deficit reduction plan," Zients told the House Armed Services Committee. "It is not the responsible way for our nation to achieve deficit reduction."
Compromise, however, seems highly unlikely before the November election as the issue is caught up in the political fight over taxes and spending. Democrats insist any plan to spare the military include tax increases on high-wage earners; Republicans reject any plan that calls for higher taxes.
The hearing underscored that political reality. The meeting of the typically bipartisan panel quickly degenerated into finger-pointing over who was responsible for last year's budget deal to cut spending and raise the nation's budget authority.
Carter said military personnel would be exempt from the automatic cuts, but every other military account would be affected, from weapons to the number of hours commissaries operate to potential furloughs.
"Some later-deploying units (including some deploying to Afghanistan) could receive less training, especially in the Army and Marine Corps," Carter said. "Under some circumstances, this reduced training could impact their ability to respond to a new contingency, should one occur."
Raising the political stakes, GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina spent two days in some of the most contested presidential states warning of the impact of the cuts on local businesses and jobs. They demanded that Obama negotiate with Republicans and Democrats to work out a solution.
Major defense contractors are wary of the impending cuts and debating whether they need to advise employees 60 days in advance of possible layoffs. That would be four days before the election. A law says those notices would have to go out ahead of time.
The Labor Department, however, said Monday that federal contractors do not have to warn their employees about potential layoffs from the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts due to kick in Jan. 2. The guidance letter said it would be "inappropriate" for employers to send such warnings because it is still speculative if and where the cuts might occur.
The White House told agency officials Tuesday to "continue normal spending and operations" since more than five months remain for Congress to act to avert the automatic cuts.