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The U.S. House on Dec. 20 approved part of House Speaker John Boehner's so-called fiscal "Plan B" measure that would cancel pending deep defense cuts and protect the Pentagon budget from cuts this year.
The defense sequestration-canceling portion of the controversial bill passed 215-209 in a mostly party-line vote. The House was expected to vote later on Dec. 20 on the second part, which would raise tax rates on Americans who earn more than $1 million annually, but Boehner said in a statement he had pulled that measure due to insufficient GOP votes.
Plan B replaces sequestration budget cuts at the Defense Department in part by increasing federal employees' contributions to their pension funds by five percentage points over five years. It also ends the Social Security supplement at retirement for federal employees hired beginning in 2013.
The two-part measure spawned some of the most dramatic moments in and around the House chamber in an already dramatic year, as members of both parties spoke passionately in favor of and against it in floor speeches and in conversations with reporters in the ornate Speaker's Lobby.
House Budget Committee Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., called the three-day process of preparing, debating and finally voting on the measure "a political stunt." Van Hollen boldly said the speaker's legislation, if it became law, would have driven the nation closer to the fiscal cliff.
Several House Democratic members told Defense News that canceling the pending Pentagon cuts was unproductive in terms of seeking a policy avenue around the cliff and unwise politically for the House Republican leadership.
Those Democrats said they oppose the full $500 billion defense cut, but believe a smaller number of military cuts would help hit the $1.2 trillion target while not hindering national security.
"It's not wise politically for this legislation to say, ‘No more defense cuts,' " House Appropriations Defense subcommittee member Jim Moran, D-Va., said in a brief interview outside the House chamber. "If given appropriate discretion, the defense budget could absorb another $500 billion reduction."
Moran slammed Boehner and House Republicans for proposing to cancel the defense sequestration cuts while leaving in place an equal cut to domestic entitlement programs. Because the defense cuts would be canceled, it appears domestic programs would take an even larger funding hit.
"Not one defense CEO that I've talked to has told me he wants his [weapons] program funded at the expense of people in need," Moran told Defense News.
But House Republicans continued to stand by their stance, which forced Boehner on Dec. 19 to add the Pentagon-protection language, that the Defense Department budget should not be tapped as part of any big deficit-reduction package.
But House Defense Appropriations subcommittee member Tom Cole, R-Okla., told reporters passing the Boehner Plan B would give Republicans "more leverage in the fiscal cliff negotiations … because we would take the revenue piece off the table and then we could move to areas where we're stronger."
Cole, a former political strategist, later said "it is not unwise politically" to have included in the Plan B bill the provisions that would cancel the defense sequestration cuts.
Numerous public opinion polls for months have shown most Americans believe the Pentagon budget — which could approach $630 billion (base and war funding) in 2013 — should be shrunk. But Cole contends "if Americans had an opportunity to look at what's happened recently, that we've already cut the defense budget, they would probably answer those [poll] questions differently."
House Armed Services Committee member Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., told reporters the speaker's move to shield Pentagon spending was wise policy and politics.
Hunter, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, summed up what other Republican hawks said this week: He is unsure whether Obama and congressional leaders can achieve the mandated $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions without more cuts to the massive Pentagon budget.
"I don't know," he said. But if a deficit deal does include some level of Pentagon cuts below the $500 billion sequestration amount, "it better be one hell of a deal."
Posted late Dec. 19 by the House Rules Committee, Boehner's Plan B addition would require $19 billion in new discretionary spending cuts, while allowing the president and the White House Office of Management and Budget to conduct a sequestration round if fiscal 2013 discretionary spending levels exceed specific limits, known as caps.
But the Boehner measure would prohibit the president from tapping the defense budget in 2013 to get under spending caps.
The White House said Obama would veto the bill. It appears doubtful the Senate will take up either part of the Boehner legislation.
A senior House GOP defense aide called on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to bring the House measure to a vote.
"Can the Senate remember how to amend a bill?" the senior GOP aide asked. "The Senate should amend it, approve it, and send it back to move this process forward."
The vote came even as the speaker remains in talks with Obama about a broad deficit-reduction plan ahead of a Dec. 31 deadline, after which the nation would plunge off the cliff and the 10-year defense and domestic cuts would be triggered.
Obama told reporters Dec. 19 that he and Boehner are relatively close to striking such a deal.