WASHINGTON — Among the many jobs assigned to the U.S. secretary of defense is that of salesman: trying to persuade Capitol Hill lawmakers to buy into administration policy proposals.
Chuck Hagel ran into some skeptical customers Thursday when he testified about President Barack Obama’s budget plan before the House Armed Services Committee.
“I’d like to hear which missions we must now abandon, reduce or cancel outright to comply with the president’s budget — because I don’t see the world getting any safer,” the committee’s chairman, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said at the start of the hearing.
The panel’s vice chairman, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, was even more blunt.
“There is a widespread view that you were brought into the Pentagon to cut defense,” Thornberry told Hagel.
Hagel countered that he’s not the man holding the hatchet. Most of the cuts the Pentagon is now implementing were set in motion nearly two years ago, after all.
“I’ve been in this job six weeks,” Hagel said. “The cuts that we’re talking about occurred long before I ever got here. So I don’t think I had a lot to do with any of the decisions to cut defense spending.”
And he added that his direction from the White House was never to slash military spending.
“The president did not instruct me ... when he asked me to do this job, to go over and cut the heart out of the Pentagon,” Hagel said.
Despite some sharp questions, the overall tone of Thursday’s hearing was more congenial than the last time Hagel appeared on the Hill.
During his confirmation hearing earlier this year, GOP members of the Senate Armed Services Committee grilled him for hours over his past statements and his positions on Iran, Israel, nuclear disarmament and other topics.
In contrast, Thursday’s discussion was more focused on dollars and cents and how to manage fiscal realities.
Flanked by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale, Hagel walked through the $526.6 billion plan for the next year’s defense budget, which the administration released Wednesday. The longer-range budget reflects $487 billion in cuts over 10 years that Congress approved as part of the 2011 debt ceiling deal.
The Pentagon is scrambling to deal with across-the-board cuts known as sequestration that went into effect last month and most likely will result in furloughs this summer for most civilian defense employees.
Over the long term, Obama is proposing to replace sequestration cuts of $500 billion over the next 10 years with about $150 billion in cuts over the same period. The cuts Obama proposed would be backloaded, giving the Pentagon more time to prepare for them.
The Pentagon also is looking to raise fees for health care. The overall program costs around $53 billion a year and represents 10 percent of the defense budget. Congress, with the backing of veterans groups, has resisted significant changes in the fees for a program that covers nearly 10 million active-duty personnel, retirees, reservists and their families.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the cost of the program could reach $65 billion by 2017 and $95 billion by 2030.
And the administration is calling for another round of the domestic base closing process known as BRAC.
Hagel described that process as an “imperfect” process and acknowledged there would be $2.4 billion in upfront costs.
“But in the long term, there are significant savings,” he said. “The previous five rounds of BRAC are saving $12 billion annually. And those savings will continue.”
Hagel said there also is a plan in the works to address the underutilization of the department’s medical facilities.
Throughout the hearing, he answered a range of nonbudget questions. For example, he said he supports the president’s position to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay.
As he left the hearing room, Hagel told reporters he enjoyed discussing the budget with members of Congress.
Hagel is set to testify on the budget next week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, but he brushed aside questions that referred to his rocky confirmation hearing.
“That was years ago,” Hagel said. “I think next week will be just like this hearing. We’re going to get into substance and the issues, and I’ll welcome that and I’ll look forward to it.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press.
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