WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama would exempt military personnel from any automatic defense spending cuts, the White House says amid the congressional clamor for specifics on how the administration would implement the looming across-the-board reductions.
Acting Office of Management and Budget Director Jeffrey Zients said Tuesday what military leaders had been suggesting for months — the president would exercise his authority under the budget law and spare uniformed men and women.
Zients and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter were scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee on the impending cuts.
"This is considered to be in the national interest to safeguard the resources necessary to compensate the men and women serving to defend our nation and to maintain the force levels required for national security," Zients said in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
"It is recognized that this action would increase the sequester in other defense programs," he added, referring to looming across-the-board spending cuts.
Automatic cuts of $110 billion are slated to hit domestic and defense programs beginning Jan. 2 unless Congress can figure out a way to avert the reductions. The failure of the bipartisan congressional supercommittee to come up with $1.2 trillion in savings set the cuts in motion.
Democrats say the military can be spared if Republicans are willing to consider tax increases for high-wage earners. Republicans argue that the defense cuts could be offset with reductions in food stamps, benefits for federal workers and social services programs like day care for children and Meals on Wheels for the elderly.
With no signs of consensus, the automatic cuts probably will be addressed after the November election in a lame-duck session.
In the three months to the election, Republicans are using the looming reductions in military spending as a political cudgel against Obama, arguing that the commander in chief is willing to risk the nation's security as he uses the leverage in the budget showdown with Congress. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has echoed GOP lawmakers' criticism.
Democrats counter that Republicans who voted for the cuts are trying to wriggle out of last August's deficit-cutting agreement and they must consider tax increases as part of any congressional compromise to stave off reductions.
Among the members of the House Armed Services Committee, 22 Republicans, including the panel's chairman, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., and 18 Democrats voted for the cuts. Thirteen Republicans and seven Democrats, including ranking member Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, opposed them.
Raising the political stakes, three Senate Republicans — John McCain of Arizona, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — spent two days touring presidential battleground states warning of the impact of the cuts on local businesses and jobs. They demanded that Obama negotiate with Republicans and Democrats to work out a solution.
Responding to the announcement sparing personnel, the three expressed frustration with the administration's handling of the issue.
"Rather than coming to the table with Republicans and Democrats in Congress to finally address the issue of budget sequestration, the Obama administration is flailing around attempting to make sequester look less devastating than it actually is. Today's announcement increases the impact of these arbitrary cuts on the readiness of our armed forces," they said in a statement.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., noted that there are "a few Republicans wandering around the country stirring up things on sequester."
He urged them to try to persuade other GOP lawmakers to back tax increases.
Major defense contractors are wary of the impending cuts and debating whether they need to advise employees 60 days in advance of possible layoffs. That would be four days before the election. A law known as the WARN Act says those notices would have to go out ahead of time.
The Labor Department, however, said Monday that federal contractors do not have to warn their employees about potential layoffs from the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts due to kick in Jan. 2. The guidance letter said it would be "inappropriate" for employers to send such warnings because it is still speculative if and where the cuts might occur.
The White House told agency officials Tuesday to "continue normal spending and operations" since more than five months remain for Congress to act to avert the automatic cuts.
According to a U.S. government official, the automatic budget cuts would slash about 10,000 jobs within the intelligence community. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the numbers have not been made public.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.