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McKeon says Pentagon's fiscal woes were avoidable

Richard Lardner, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- There is plenty of blame to go around for the pending automatic budget cuts that have put the U.S. military on the brink of a readiness crisis, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Wednesday.

Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon said that neither Congress nor the Obama administration has "clean hands." The debt crisis forcing the cuts was decades in the making, yet both sides opted for the easy path "when we should have explored the bravery of restraint," he said at a committee hearing.

The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, urged lawmakers to prevent the cuts, called a sequester. Smith said it is time to stop talking about the impact of the reductions and "take immediate action to stave off the impending disaster that would occur should sequestration be implemented."

The sequester is scheduled to begin on March 1 and is the result of Congress' failure to trim the deficit by $1.2 trillion over a decade. The Pentagon faces a $46 billion budget reduction through the end of September, and additional cuts would come in future years as long as the sequester remains in effect. The military also has to absorb a $487 billion reduction in defense spending over the next 10 years mandated by the Budget Control Act passed in 2011.

The military's fiscal challenges are further complicated by the lack of a budget for the current fiscal year. Congress hasn't approved one. Lawmakers have instead been passing bills called continuing resolutions, which keep spending levels at last year's rates. That means the Pentagon is operating on less money than planned, and that compounds the problem, defense officials said. A freeze on hiring is already in place and the military has cut back on maintenance at bases and facilities, they said.

"The wolf is at the door," Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the committee.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the armed forces are just days away from a readiness crisis due to the sequester.

Carter, Dempsey, Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale, and the uniformed leaders of the military services appeared before the committee to highlight the impact of the looming budget cuts on national security.

Military officials have been conducting a vocal campaign to head off the budget cuts by emphasizing how the reductions will degrade the military's ability to respond to a crisis. The Defense Department announced last week it is cutting its aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf region from two carriers to one, a move that represents one of the most significant effects of the sequester. The U.S. has maintained two aircraft carrier groups in the Gulf for much of the last two years.