Military leaders welcome House GOP budget bill

WASHINGTON (AP) — A massive House Republican measure to keep the government operating would ease some of the pain of automatic

spending cuts slamming the Defense Department, the nation's senior military leaders told Congress on Tuesday.

Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff painted

a dire picture of construction projects on hold, limits on battleships


the waters and even a delay in the expansion of Arlington National

Cemetery due to the $43 billion in across-the-board cuts

that kicked in Friday.

Problematic for the Pentagon has been the combination of the automatic cuts and the government still operating at last year's

spending levels. The GOP measure unveiled on Monday would give the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments their detailed

2013 budgets, and sought-after flexibility, while other agencies would be frozen at 2012 spending levels.

The military leaders embraced that prospect, a political boost for the GOP measure just days before the House votes.

"It mitigates at least one-third of our

problem," said Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, who earlier told the panel

that the budget

cuts and last year's spending level had left the service with an

$18 billion shortfall in operation and maintenance plus $6

billion in cuts in other programs.

Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of Naval Operations, said the bill would be "almost night and day," with a shortfall of

$8.6 billion in operations reduced by more than half.

"We can get back to the covenant that we

have with the combatant commanders to get almost all of that back,"

Greenert told

a House Appropriations panel. "We get two carrier overhauls. We

get a carrier new construction. ... We get all the military


The GOP measure would fund day-to-day federal operations through September — and avert a potential government shutdown later

this month.

The measure would leave in place automatic cuts of 5 percent to domestic agencies and 7.8 percent to the Pentagon ordered

Friday by President Barack Obama after months of battling with Republicans over the budget.

The GOP funding measure is set to advance through the House on Thursday in hopes of preventing a government shutdown when

a six-month spending bill passed last September runs out March 27.

Top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell of

Kentucky said that bipartisan talks were under way on changes that the

Senate would

make to the House measure. He said that the House GOP leadership

doesn't expect the Senate to simply approve the House bill

without changes.

"There seems to be no interest on either side in having a kind of confrontational government shutdown scenario," McConnell


Senate Democrats want to add more detailed budgets for domestic Cabinet agencies, but it will take GOP help to do so. The

House measure also denies money sought by Obama and his Democratic allies to implement the signature 2010 laws overhauling

the health care system and financial regulation.

The impact of the new cuts was proving slow to reach the broader public.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in separate testimony on Capitol Hill, acknowledged that it will be "several months" before

meat inspectors are furloughed as part of the across-the-board spending cuts.

Vilsack told a House Agriculture Committee hearing that each meat inspector will likely be furloughed 11 or 12 days, instead

of 15 days as the Obama administration earlier claimed.

The White House has used the meat inspector

furloughs as one example of how the cuts will affect the economy.


plants cannot operate without inspectors, so the furloughs will

cause plants across the country to shut down intermittently.

Vilsack said the process will be complicated because of negotiations with labor unions that represent the meat inspectors.

Members of the committee pressed Vilsack on whether the department could find ways to make other cuts in the food safety budget

instead of cutting inspector salaries. But Vilsack said 87 percent of that agency's budget goes to inspectors and there is

no other way to do it under the rules of the sequester.

"No matter how you slice it, no matter how

you dice it, there is nothing you can do without impacting the

front-line inspectors,"

he said.

Vilsack also complained about the structure of the across-the-board cuts.

"The problem with a sequester is that it doesn't give you any flexibility," he said.

The across-the-board cuts would carve $85

billion in spending from the government's $3.6 trillion budget for this

year, concentrating

the cuts in the approximately $1 trillion allocated to the

day-to-day agency operating budgets set by Congress each year.

Those so-called discretionary accounts received big boosts in the

first two years of Obama's presidency, when Democrats controlled

Congress, but have borne the brunt of the cuts approved as Obama

and Republicans have grappled over the budget.

Both Democrats and Republicans for months have warned that the cuts are draconian and would slow the growth of the economy,

costing hundreds of thousands of jobs. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, for instance, says they would slow the

economy by 0.6 percent and cost about 750,000 jobs.

The military already is facing a cut in projected spending of $487 billion over 10 years, reductions established in the budget

law that Obama and congressional Republicans embraced in August 2011. The automatic cuts are in addition to those cuts.

The House bill would boost the Pentagon's

operation and maintenance account to $173.4 billion, about $10 billion

more than

last year's level but slightly below Obama's request. Other

accounts — personnel, procurement, and research and development

— would face cuts to make up the difference.