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Counting down, it is now exactly two weeks before the clock runs out for Congress's supercommittee. If its six Democrats and six Republicans fail to reduce deficits by more than a trillion dollars, automatic spending cuts will kick in. Under this process, known as sequestration, the law would require half the cuts to come from defense spending. NPR's David Welna reports.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: As if Congress had not fallen into low-enough esteem already, its Joint Select Committee on Debt Reduction appears headed for a failure that many fear will jolt the financial markets once again. By all reports, the Republicans on the evenly divided panel have refused to consider the increased tax revenues that the Democrats say should be part of any debt-reduction deal. Still, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell yesterday cast his party as the side seeking a deal.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: The six Republicans on the Joint Select Committee want an outcome, do not believe failure is an option; and we are working toward that end as diligently as we can.
WELNA: Because what Republicans don't want is the consequence of failure, which is the sequestration of up to $600 billion that the Pentagon would otherwise spend over the next decade. John Ullyot is a former spokesman for Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
JOHN ULLYOT: Republicans never thought it would come to a sequestration where defense cuts would be triggered.
WELNA: Republican lawmakers such as South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham are already talking about undoing the law that calls for the automatic spending cuts. Graham says he's all for reducing deficits.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: But if the committee fails, I'm not going to allow the triggers to be pulled that would shoot the Defense Department in the head.
WELNA: Last week, the supercommittee heard from the co-chairman of President Obama's blue ribbon fiscal commission. Erskine Bowles said he'd heard of efforts on Capitol Hill to protect the defense budget from the automatic cuts that were designed to push the panel to reach an agreement.
ERSKINE BOWLES: I think that would be disastrous. I think people would look at this country and say, you guys can't govern.
WELNA: Sequestration would also cut an equal amount of domestic spending. Such social programs as Medicaid, food stamps and Social Security would be exempt from sequestration, whereas they could be subject to cuts by the supercommittee. That's why some Democrats who want more cuts in defense spending are rooting for the supercommittee to fail. Robert Borosage heads the left-leaning Institute for America's Future.
ROBERT BOROSAGE: If you had to choose, as Newt Gingrich says, between blowing off your head and shooting your kneecap, the sequestration is the least damaging course for the most vulnerable Americans.
WELNA: Meanwhile, the House Armed Services Committee has held a series of hearings on the possible consequences of cuts in defense, beyond the hundreds of billions of dollars agreed to in the debt ceiling deal last summer. Buck McKeon, the panel's Republican chairman, put this question to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last month.
REPRESENTATIVE BUCK MCKEON: Do you agree with me that the national defense has contributed enough to deficit reduction, and that no further cuts should be recommended?
LEON PANETTA: Absolutely.
WELNA: Panetta warned the committee that sequestration would, in his words, devastate our national defense and quote, hollow out the military.
PANETTA: I don't say that as scare tactics; I don't say it as a threat. It's a reality.
WELNA: Lawrence Korb says that's nonsense. Korb was assistant Defense secretary during the Reagan administration; he's now with the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
LAWRENCE KORB: We've done this before - much greater: Nixon, Eisenhower, Reagan second term and Bush first term, and Clinton - without these devastating consequences.
WELNA: Korb says Pentagon spending in real dollars would return to 2007 levels if sequestration does takes place. That would amount to roughly a 15 percent cut, while previous Pentagon cutbacks averaged around 30 percent. Even so, that's far more than many Republicans are ready to accept, which is why all hope for the supercommittee has not yet died.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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