The back-room meetings and negotiations are underway now. The strategies are being drawn up. The advance scouts are looking over the battlefield and selecting an optimal place for a major engagement.
We said last week the coming months might look like the third act of an action movie, but not only may it involve a last-minute rescue attempt, it may also involve one of those big battles with multiple simultaneous story lines -- think "Return of the Jedi."
All of this is happening at once: The Pentagon has given the White House a draft of its big strategic review, Bloomberg Government's Roxana Tiron reports, which was prepared against $450 billion in reduced budget growth -- not that plus the additional $500 billion under the 2013 sequester. (DoD continues to shut its eyes and plug its ears.) Meanwhile, congressional Republicans appear to have resolved to go ahead with legislation that would void or block sequester, report Reuters' Rachelle Younglai and Andrea Shalal-Esa, despite President Obama's veto threat.
Defense advocates probably cannot muster enough support to both void the sequester and overturn a presidential veto. But even though the failed "super committee" and its Doomsday weapon were creations of Congress, Republicans may try to dump it in Obama's lap. Defense commentator Loren Thompson points out that defense cuts would take some of their deepest bites in states that Obama needs to win next year. So Republicans could try to paint the president as another lily-livered, "weak on defense" Democrat, hoping the electoral math would get him to yield on at least DoD's budget.
But not all the Republicans sound as though they want to go along. Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan sounds eerily like Obama when he says he wants to keep the threat of sequester, but that he's "for replacing the savings in a way that's smarter." Double meanwhile, POLITICO's Jake Sherman and Manu Raju report that House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor is floating a potential deal in which the House would agree to extend payroll tax cuts that Obama wants if it could also "tweak" the projected reductions in defense spending.
Bam! Y'got Luke facing Darth Vader and the Emperor; y'got Lando and the Rebel fleet fighting the second Death Star and the Imperial starfleet; and, oh by the way, y'got Han and Leia and Chewbacca trying to deactivate the shield generator on Endor -- all at once.
There's one other important thing to remember: Inside the family, we often ascribe special significance to the defense game, because it Protects our Freedoms, because of the Constitutional mandate and because "The Troops" are generically so popular. But in the larger context of Washington, defense is often viewed as just another snout in the trough. Many Americans, as we've seen, don't care about it at all. Some even have a perception that Pentagon spending is what's responsible for the country's dire budget situation.
So the political calculus for Republicans and Obama is different today from the way it was during George W. Bush's administration. The White House may wager that it doesn't matter if Republicans paint it as "weak on defense," given what it feels is the strength of its existing national security credentials, and that voters don't care about national security the way they used to. Obama can say, huh, I thought you guys wanted to tackle the deficit, and yet you're fighting $1.2 trillion in budget reductions?
The Pentagon, of course, is caught in the middle. Secretary Panetta is stuck with the impossible position of needing to support the sequester after having spent months fighting it. Even now, as we've been told so many times, the threat of the 2013 guillotine chop is playing havoc across the Defense Department, as budgeteers scramble to try to prepare for it now. Here's how the House Armed Services Republicans put it on Nov. 21:
The Defense Department operates off long term plans and budgets, making important and irrevocable decisions years before they are implemented. In order to meet the timeline of the [Budget Control Act] and make the required cuts to comply with spending caps, the DOD will begin cuts immediately. The DOD will have to frontload many of the cuts because of high short term costs such as separation payments and penalties for cancelling contracts. Even if the Congress were to amend the sequestration triggers in the next year, some decisions would be irrevocable. A shipyard closed because of program cancellations will not be there when we are ready to buy ships again. With the most combat training of any force in our history, we will permanently lose invaluable experience with tens of thousands of troops receiving pink slips in 2012.This means that even though Panetta might never say so publicly, he might quietly endorse something like Cantor's deal as described by POLITICO. Congress only has until the end of the month to extend the payroll tax cuts, and if it could also defray sequestration in that time, it might save DoD a lot of broken china. The Building sounds like it finally has a plan it likes for $450 billion in reductions, so it could just default back to that and soldier on.
If that's not what happens, it could start to get tricky keeping all these story lines straight.