WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel rejected the suggestion that President Barack Obama tapped him to "cut the heart out of the Pentagon," pointedly reminding lawmakers Thursday that Congress approved the smaller, deficit-driven military budgets long before he took the job.
Faced with a $487 billion budget cut over a decade, Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pentagon had no choice in drawing up the politically unpopular reductions in the president's proposed $526.6 billion budget for next year.
The blueprint calls for another round of domestic base closures, higher health care fees for retirees and their dependents, and a smaller pay raise for personnel. Dempsey cast the choice as between a well-compensated force and the readiness of the nation's war fighters.
Cost-conscious lawmakers have clamored for fiscal austerity in a period of trillion-dollar deficits, but often balk when the cuts hit military bases in their home states or affect powerful veterans' groups. That disconnect was on stark display during the nearly four hours the Pentagon leaders testified before the House Armed Services Committee.
In one exchange, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, questioned Hagel on what his role is — managing the decline in defense spending or warning of the dangers of military cuts.
"There is a widespread view that you were brought into the Pentagon to cut defense," Thornberry told Hagel.
The secretary, on the job six weeks, said the cuts were law, part of the budget agreement reached between Obama and congressional Republicans in August 2011. Added to those reductions are $41 billion in automatic, across-the-board cuts, commonly known as sequestration.
Military leaders have warned that the automatic cuts would do harm to the military, but deficit hawks in Congress prevailed over defense hawks and the cuts kicked in March 1. Tea partyers, Republicans and Democrats continued to disagree over whether to reverse them.