Lindsey Graham (KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
BY MARY ORNDORFF TROYAN
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Tuesday he would consider additional cuts to the defense budget only if Congress also agrees to control future spending on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
Graham didn't rule out a possible compromise in the high-stakes negotiations over how to avoid the "fiscal cliff" of spending cuts and tax increases set to take effect in January. But he said Congress should immediately eliminate the possibility of $500 billion in across-the-board spending cuts at the Pentagon over the next nine years because they would threaten national security.
Those cuts are part of the "sequestration" process contained in the 2011 law raising the nation's debt ceiling. The cuts are automatic based on the failure of last year's debt-reduction "super committee" to agree on a plan.
"I will say no to sequestration with all the force of my being because it's a dumb way to reduce defense spending," Graham said in a speech to the Concerned Veterans of America.
The $1.2 trillion in cuts will take effect unless Congress agrees to a more gradual deficit-reduction plan. About half the cuts will fall on the Pentagon and the rest will affect non-defense programs.
The defense cuts would be in addition to the 10-year, $487 billion spending reductions already underway at the Defense Department. Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a defense hawk, did not say exactly how much beyond the $487 billion he would be willing to go or exactly which programs should be affected.
Defense reductions beyond the $487 billion should be an option "only if we stop this country from becoming Greece, and that would be meaningful entitlement reform," Graham said.
"My bottom line about how much I would give is going to be based on two simple concepts: We're still at war and we can't afford to lose, and secondly, there is no substitute in the 21st century or any other time I can envision for a strong America that has the ability through force of arms to fight and defeat evil."
Sequestration has been ineffective as a motivation for Congress to compromise on reducing the nation's debt, and Republicans should not have allowed it to become law, Graham said.
"You're taking a meat axe to the military and other parts of the budget in an illogical way, so that's why I want it off the table," Graham said after the speech.
Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as well as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, oppose the sequestration cuts to the military. Democrats have resisted significant cuts to Social Security and Medicare during negotiations on avoiding the fiscal cliff.
Graham said major decisions about defense spending also should wait until issues affecting the Middle East - specifically Iran's nuclear ambitions and the uprising in Syria - are resolved.
"If we don't know how these things will unfold, then I think we're making a very poor national security decision driven by budgets, so now is not the time to go much beyond $487 billion," Graham said.
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, said at Tuesday's forum that the Pentagon might be able to trim another $100-150 billion over 10 years by decreasing ground forces, nuclear weapons and Navy programs, and by buying fewer F-35 aircraft.
But he said he would endorse such changes only as part of a broader deficit-reduction deal.
"These cuts in capabilities are risky," O'Hanlon said.