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Defense could get key role in next phase of deficit reduction

Wow, has it been a depressing summer in Washington. And by all accounts, it's going to be a depressing -- and frantic -- autumn: Although Congress is out of town until September, there's already a lot of talk about which lawmakers will be named to what Hill people are calling the "super committee," and which the rest of us call the "Super Congress." This 12-member, extra-constitutional, bicameral panel will be charged with coming up with an agreement to avoid the Doomsday Device, and a report Tuesday could give a ray of hope to the military-industrial complex, which wants to avoid any further budget reductions: House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon is considered a "major contender" for a spot on the Super Friends, Bob Cusack reports in The Hill newspaper.

McKeon is a key defense advocate on the Hill, and unlike other potential members of the Super-Congress, he has a strong incentive not to let the Doomsday automatic budget sequestration take place. The Pentagon and the defense industry have howled about the possible consequences of a potential net $850 billion spending reduction, and if McKeon gets a seat on the Super-Congress, you'd better believe he'll be hearing from them.

According to Cusack, two other HASC members could potentially make it onto Team America, although they're both considered "long shots:" Texas Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry or Virginia Republican Rep. Randy Forbes. Both are strong supporters of military spending, but with only a total of three House Republican spots available to Speaker John Boehner, Chairman McKeon might have an edge. Then again, Boehner might not pick any defense advocates -- the Washington Post's Paul Kane did not include any Armed Services lawmakers in his rundown of potential Super Congress members.

No matter who ends up on the panel, the Pentagon has made its position clear: Secretary Panetta says DoD has suffered enough and done its part in sacrificing portions of its planned future budget growth. Panetta says the Super Congress must reform entitlements -- which fall on the "mandatory" side of the budget and make up most of what the U.S. spends every year -- and deal with taxes ... somehow. But it should not come back to the Pentagon with more cuts, he says. As we've theorized here before, that may not be politically doable, but there is an accounting trick that might come into play:

Panetta and other top DoD leaders say they've been planning since President Obama's speech in April to absorb around $400 billion worth of reduced growth over the next while -- maybe 10 years, maybe longer -- and it appeared with the initial round of $350 billion in reductions that the Building was even getting off a little light. If the Super Congress makes another "cut" of $50 billion to get DoD back to the $400 billion against which it's been planning, everybody wins -- DoD looks like a sport, Republican and Democratic members of the Super Congress members can look like hardliners, and the Pentagon can just submit the same fiscal 2013 program it's been planning to work up all along.

Whatever happens, Washington is guaranteed to remain a waking nightmare for budget, defense and policy wonks until Thanksgiving, at the earliest.

UPDATE 8/10: Congressional leaders have been announcing their picks for the Super Congress, and neither McKeon, Thornberry nor Forbes is among them. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a longtime Washington budgeteer, will be on the Super Congress, but it isn't clear whether he'll be wearing his defense advocate hat or his tax opponent hat.

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