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Stop automatic defense cuts, Panetta urges Congress

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Automatic spending cuts that could result from a special congressional committee's failure to reach a deficit-reduction agreement could "tear a seam" in defense, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Monday.

The so-called super committee's failure on Monday to agree on $1.2 trillion in deficit-cutting measures triggers up to $600 billion in additional defense cuts over 10 years beginning in 2013.

"If Congress fails to act over the next year, the Department of Defense will face devastating, automatic, across-the-board cuts that will tear a seam in the nation's defense," Panetta said in a statement.

"The half-trillion in additional cuts demanded by sequester would lead to a hollow force incapable of sustaining the missions it is assigned."

Republicans have vowed to prevent automatic cuts from hitting the military. Republican Representative Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, announced on Monday he would introduce legislation to prevent the military cuts from taking effect.

President Barack Obama, accusing Republicans of scuttling the committee's efforts by refusing to consider tax increases on the wealthy, said he would veto any effort to bypass the automatic trigger.

Panetta said he backed Obama's "call for Congress to avoid an easy way out of this crisis. Congress cannot simply turn off the sequester mechanism, but instead must pass deficit reduction at least equal to the $1.2 trillion it was charged to pass."

During the months the super committee deliberated, Panetta consistently urged lawmakers not to reduce national security spending beyond the more than $450 billion already approved by Congress in August.

Panetta said he had made clear the Pentagon had a responsibility to help the United States get its fiscal house in order, but added his primary responsibility as secretary of defense "is to protect the security of the nation."

The Pentagon's ability to provide benefits and support for U.S. troops and their families also would be jeopardized if the automatic cuts are allowed to go into effect, he said.

"Our troops deserve better, and our nation demands better," Panetta said.

(Reporting by JoAnne Allen; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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