Pentagon asks Congress to end sequester

When the sequester became a real political threat last year, many lawmakers complained that the Pentagon didn't seem ready for the possibility of across-the-board budget cuts; now the military is sending the message to Congress that if the sequester isn't drastically changed, it will mean unacceptable defense cuts in the future.

"Under sequester level cuts, our military options and flexibility will be severely constrained," said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, as officials painted a dark picture of the Pentagon's future, saying it could mean mothballing several aircraft carriers and deep cuts in other military branches.

"The sequester level scenario would compel us to consider these changes because there would be no realistic alternative," Hagel told reporters at a Pentagon briefing.

Hagel said a recent review of the Pentagon's budget situation focused on possible cuts in management efficiency and overhead, military pay and benefits, basic force structure and size, and future defense missions.

Other than management efficiency, the Congress hasn't shown any interest in making changes to the military's health care system, or its pension and pay system - and certainly not in terms of cutting unneeded weapons systems.

So far though, Hagel's warnings haven't brought lawmakers to their knees in the Congress, as critics of the Pentagon note that even with the across the board cuts of the sequester in place, the military's budget could well remain over $500 billion each year through the end of this decade.

Congress and the sequester

Right now, the sequester almost seems likely to stay in effect, mainly because there don't seem to be the votes in Congress to agree on any other budget plan, or to agree to target the cuts instead of having them go across the board. For example:

+ Democrats would like to wipe away the sequester with more targeted cuts and tax increases; House Republicans are emphatic in their opposition to new taxes of any kind.

+ Republicans have offered up targeted cuts as a way to shift more money into defense, but Democrats have made clear they will not agree to any kind of tradeoff where social programs are cut so the military can be made whole.

+ Even though Republicans set out a discretionary budget of $967 billion, they can't seem to keep GOP troops in line to vote for that plan; on Wednesday, House GOP leaders yanked a Transportation spending bill off the floor when it became obvious that Republicans were short on votes for the plan, as just four of the 12 spending bills have been acted on by the House.

+ The record is much worse in the Senate, where none of the dozen spending bills for next year have been approved; the Senate's version of the Transportation spending bill may get hung up by filibuster on Thursday.

+ The idea of the House voting for the Senate's $1.058 trillion budget seems far-fetched.

+ The idea of the Senate voting for the House's $967 billion budget seems unlikely as well.

But in that sea of inaction, that $967 billion figure for discretionary spending may be the trump card for Republicans - because if Congress can't get anything done at all on the sequester - that $967 bllion is the post-sequester budget level in law under the Budget Control Act.