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The likelihood of avoiding sequestration on March 1 may depend on how bleak a picture the Joint Chiefs can paint in two hearings next week focusing on the national security implications of the across-the-board budget cuts.
Hearings before the House and Senate armed services committees, scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, come as lawmakers are trying to find a way around the latest self-created fiscal cliff.
President Obama has proposed a sequester avoidance package built on a combination of tax increases and spending cuts that would leave the military with $21 billion less than originally planned for this fiscal year and roughly $250 billion less through fiscal 2022 — about half of the reduction the military faces if there is no deal.
Republicans, however, are unwilling to sign onto a plan in which 50 percent of the savings would come from tax increases. While concerned about the impact on defense, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the new ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the military's worries are "not desperate enough to raise taxes" when there are other options.
Inhofe is part of a group of defense-minded Republicans pushing an option for avoiding any across-the-board cuts in 2013 by reducing the size of the federal workforce through attrition and denying a pay raise to Congress. This is similar — only with the pay freeze added — to a plan that went nowhere in Congress last year.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., warned that sequestration could "start costing lives" through cutbacks in weapons and training. He said the GOP alternative is "as painless as possible," while calling the Obama plan irresponsible.
McKeon said he hoped testimony from the Joint Chiefs will help build momentum for the House, Senate and White House to agree on a compromise.
McKeon said that based on conversations he has had with the service chiefs, he is worried that any reductions in training and equipment could start affecting troops in Afghanistan as early as next year. Forces already deployed, and forces scheduled as replacements, are receiving full training, he said, but units scheduled for training further down in the rotation cycle could arrive in the combat theater less ready, he said.
The Joint Chiefs, including the National Guard Bureau chief, and senior defense officials are scheduled to testify Tuesday before the House Armed Services Committee and Wednesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.