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Cabinet out in force on Hill to defend budgets, programs

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wednesday was a whirlwind day for the Obama administration on Capitol Hill.

In the Rayburn House Office Building, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned lawmakers against making excessive cuts to the military, while down the hall, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis made a pitch for job-training programs.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius defended the administration's health care law before a House panel, while across the Capitol, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner told senators that the administration was willing to work with them on approving several stalled international trade agreements.

All told, six Cabinet members testified at seven congressional hearings, giving the White House a key opportunity to defend its polices two days after releasing its budget requests for the upcoming fiscal year.

In perhaps the day's most anticipated hearing, Mr. Gates told the House Armed Services Committee that deeper spending cuts than those already proposed would pose a "crisis" to the military's mission to maintain readiness and prepare for the future.

"We still live in a very dangerous and very unstable world," Mr. Gates said. "Our military must remain strong and agile enough to face a diverse range of threats."

The Pentagon this week rolled out a record base budget for the upcoming fiscal year of $553 billion, an increase of $22 billion from 2010 levels. Additional overseas war funding, however, is down $41.5 billion.

"We shrink from our global security responsibilities at our peril," he said. "Retrenchment brought about by shortsighted cuts could well lead to costlier and more tragic consequences later, indeed, as they always have in the past."

Mr. Gates said his department has been vigilant to cut waste and outdated projects in recent years, as reflected in a Pentagon plan released last month that calls for $78 billion in spending cuts over five years.

The defense secretary also told the panel that the administration wants more military personnel in Iraq after 2011 than the 150 or so scheduled to remain. The rest of the U.S. force, which is about 47,000, is leaving under a 2008 agreement with the Iraqi government. Mr. Gates said the pullout will proceed unless the Iraqis ask the U.S. to stay.

"The truth of the matter is, the Iraqis are going to have some problems that they're going to have to deal with if we are not there in some numbers," he said.

"But it's their country. It's a sovereign country," he said. "And we will abide by the agreement unless the Iraqis ask us to have additional people there."

Treasury's Mr. Geithner told lawmakers that the administration wants to work with them to approve long-delayed trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.

"We'd like to pass all of them, alongside trade-adjustment assistance, and we want to do it this year," he told the Senate Finance Committee.

The secretary said that if the trade agreements aren't approved, U.S. "business just goes to other countries."

Republicans have been pushing for action on all three agreements, which were approved during the administration of George W. Bush but have stalled because of Democratic opposition.

Mr. Geithner also told the panel that Congress needs to work with the White House to reform the country's tax code. For starters, he has proposed cutting the corporate tax rate to the high 20 percent range, down from the current 35 percent.

He added that it was possible to reform the corporate tax code before updating individual tax laws.

Across the Capitol, Mrs. Sebelius defended the administration's 2010 health care reform law before the House Ways and Means Committee.

Committee Chairman Dave Camp called the law "a mess" and said the president's budget fails to adequately address the law's programs.

"As I look through this budget, I see budget gimmick after budget gimmick," the Michigan Republican said.

Mrs. Sebelius pushed back at GOP accusations that the reforms are a government takeover of health care, saying "nothing could be further from the truth."

Ms. Solis, while testifying before the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said she doesn't have the authority to administer parts of the Employee Free Choice Act, the so called "card check" measure that would allow unions to form after getting a majority of employees to sign a card or petition.

Legislation supporting card-check labor elections failed in the last Congress, but some Republicans have worried that the administration might try to legalize it by other means.

Committee Chairman John Kline, Minnesota Republican, told Ms. Solis that the administration has adopted several work-force policies that he said threaten job creation and economic opportunity because they "favor big labor at the expense of small businesses."

On Capitol Hill, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta — an Obama appointee but not a Cabinet member — told a Senate panel that al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri will be sent to the military prison at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, if they're caught by U.S. forces.

His comments suggest the president wouldn't try the men in the U.S. civilian court system, a Bush-era position that Mr. Obama long has criticized.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president remained committed to closing the detention center.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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