A supercommittee failure would trigger at least $500 billion in cuts to national security spending, but there is no consensus on just where they will be made.
Lawmakers included the automatic cuts in the debt ceiling deal as an incentive to get Congress to agree to shave at least $1.2 trillion from the deficit.
But the language also gave policy makers plenty of leeway.
The cuts do not begin to take effect until January 2013, which gives Congress a full year to adapt them before they are implemented. There are also disagreements over language in the debt deal, which have led to different interpretations over what could be cut.
All of this has led to predictions of huge lobbying fights on K Street and the halls of Congress, as well as dire warnings over the consequences of the cuts for both the nation’s security and economy.
“I don’t even want to contemplate what will happen next year,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) said in a telephone interview.
“I’m really trying to head it off now,” King said. “It’s going to be lobbying, political, regional, ideological, philosophical — the whole range of divisions are going to be there.”
House Armed Services Committee aides interpret the debt-ceiling deal’s mandatory cuts as putting only the Defense Department in the cross hairs. But House Foreign Affairs aides said the provision groups the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and all international affairs spending with the defense budget, meaning they could also face cuts.
One former congressional aide said the flap reflects a longtime debate in Washington about just what falls under the national defense spending umbrella.
Having multiple agencies’ budgets grouped together could lead to fights between advocates for the Pentagon and several other security agencies.
Some defense hawks, like Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) have talked publicly about merely voiding the defense cuts next year, before they would kick in. Graham told The Hill he’s looking at “a substitute for the triggers.”
“We’re looking at different options to get to $1.2 trillion that would not destroy the Defense Department,” Graham said.
HASC Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told The Hill on Friday that members have informally discussed canceling the additional defense cuts. “But nothing serious,” he said before a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
President Obama warned last week that Congress should not “shirk” its responsibilities by negating the automatic cuts.
While both parties are worried about the cuts, Republicans may be more wary.