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Deputy Secretary of Defense Carter on Sequestration

By The NewsHour, The NewsHour - February 20, 2013

Automatic spending cuts will take effect in March if a defense budget deal cannot be reached. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said he may resort to furloughing the department's civilian workers. Judy Woodruff assesses what this new threat means for the U.S. Military with Ashton Carter, Deputy Secretary of Defense.

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JUDY WOODRUFF: It was the starkest statement yet on the possible effect of automatic federal budget cuts, due to begin in nine days, on Mar. 1st. Defense Sec. Leon Panetta notified his entire civilian work force that employees could be sent home without pay.

The warning was aimed at Defense Department workers at the Pentagon and around the world. Secretary Panetta sent them a written message, as he left for a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels. In it, he said there are limited options for coping with the looming across-the-board cuts. And he said: "Should sequestration occur and continue for a substantial period, DOD will be forced to place the vast majority of its civilian work force on administrative furlough."

UNDERSECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR PERSONNEL AND READINESS JESSICA WRIGHT: On our civilians, it will be catastrophic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Within hours, top Pentagon officials were out, saying employees could lose one day of work per week for 22 weeks.

JESSICA WRIGHT: Civilians will experience a 20 percent decrease in their pay between late April and September. As a result, many families will be forced to make difficult decisions on where their financial obligations lie.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The furloughs could start in late April and save roughly $5 billion dollars. Uniformed personnel at war would be exempt, but in a letter to Congress, Panetta wrote that the spending cuts will slow training and the procurement of weapons.

The result, he said, will be a hollow force. The nation's top military leader had said as much last week at a Senate hearing on the automatic cuts, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman: This would be the steepest, biggest reduction in total obligating authority for the Defense Department in history at a time when I will personally attest to the fact that it's more dangerous than it has ever been.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In his own statement today, House Speaker John Boehner charged the president bears the blame for the stalemate -- quote -- "President Obama is ultimately responsible for our military readiness," Boehner wrote, "so it's fair to ask, what is he doing to stop his sequester that would hollow out our armed forces?"

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney fired back that Republicans are the ones who've refused to compromise.

JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: And it's important to understand that if they hold that position and the sequester goes into effect, it will go into effect and those Americans will lose their jobs because Republicans made a choice for that to happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president wants a combination of spending cuts and increased tax revenue to prevent the sequester. Republicans say they have already raised taxes, so the focus should be entirely on spending.

Steve Dennis is White House correspondent for the newspaper Roll Call.

STEVE DENNIS, Roll Call: Right now, the Republican leadership is saying absolutely nothing. They will allow absolutely no new revenue. And the White House is saying they're not going to sign anything that doesn't include new revenue. It's just -- you know, it's a game of chicken right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it won't be just ships, planes and troops affected. Domestic spending will absorb the other half of the $85 billion dollars in mandatory cuts. The Obama administration has warned that, among other things, 70,000 students would be removed from Head Start, air travel would be slowed as air traffic controllers are furloughed, and benefits for the long-term unemployed could be reduced.

But Roll Call's Dennis says the cuts wouldn't all happen at once.

STEVE DENNIS: A lot of what the White House has been talking about has been basically somewhat vague. They say that some people are going to lose access to child care benefits. Thousands of parents are going to lose their child care benefits, for example, or get kicked off of Head Start. Well, that is not going to happen on Mar. 1st. It's not -- or even Mar. 15th.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some Republicans charge the Obama administration is exaggerating the potential effects. Both the House and Senate are out of session until next week. They will return just days before the March 1st deadline.

For more on the sequestration and what it means for the U.S. military, I'm joined by Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.

Welcome, Mr. Secretary.

DEPUTY DEFENSE SECRETARY ASHTON CARTER, United States: Judy, how are you?

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, let's just pick up with that comment from some Republicans that this is exaggerated.

ASHTON CARTER: Well, for us in the Defense Department, unfortunately, it's not exaggerated.

n fact, we don't want to take any of these steps. We certainly are trying to do it in the way that does the minimum damage to national security. We don't have a lot of flexibility, and we don't have a lot of time in that regard. Sequester requires us to find $46 billion dollars in the last half of the year, and then we have an additional problem with the lack of an appropriations bill, which is a particular problem for us.

But you put those two things together, and in some of the accounts that fund training, for example, for Army units, those accounts are 30 percent short over the year, and now we only have half the year in which to make up those savings. What that means is that we're going to protect the wars in Afghanistan. We have got to fund them. We have to fund, need to fund military personnel. The president has exempted military personnel from sequester.

So the savings need to be found where we can still find savings, which will be training units that are going to be ready for other conflicts, not for Afghanistan, but that means we won't be ready for those other conflicts. That's just a mathematical fact of doing sequester. This is very damaging to national security.

Sec. Panetta and I have been saying it for 16 months. And we will do everything we can do minimize the damage, but it is what it is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When do these decisions have to be made? You made this announcement today, but to people look at this and say, well, we have got nine days until March the 1st.

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