“It is little more than a dream to suggest that Washington can reclaim bipartisanship and a spirit of compromise in that brief period of time,” writes Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Pentagon official who analyzes defense issues at the American Enterprise Institute.
Winslow Wheeler, a former Senate staffer who advocates budget reform for the Center for Defense Information, said he sees “the lame-duck as a false hope for solving all the budget issues.”
“If the new Congress can be maneuvered into behaving itself in January, it will have many tasks, including doing whatever to the Pentagon part of the sequester that the economy and budget demand at that time,” he said.
“However, there is only one direction for the Pentagon budget in foreseeable economic and budgetary circumstances: It will go lower than the current and 2013 projected levels.
“I would say sequestration is highly likely, given the dysfunction in Congress that will continue after the elections,” Mr. Wheeler said.
A defense industry executive who maintains contact with congressional officials flatly predicted that “it’s going to happen.”
‘Not easy to prevent’
“Whether you have Obama or Mitt Romney as president, I think both of them are going to find it convenient to let sequestration happen,” the executive said. “And I don’t think Congress between now and an election year is going to reverse it. Then you’re going to have a lame-duck president or lame-duck Senate or both. It will be too polarized to act. So sequestration is going to happen.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a defense budget analyst at the Brookings Institution, said, “There is too much optimism that it will somehow be averted, perhaps in a lame-duck session, because the reality of it is too ugly to contemplate.”
He added: “I rate the prospects right at 50-50 and think that the fear of sequestration may have to get worse and more palpable before anybody will try to do anything. And even once they try, it’s not easy to prevent.”
A spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a House Armed Services Committee member who voted against the Budget Control Act because of its defense cuts, called averting the automatic spending reductions “a tall order.”
“We still need to make the best case possible and make every effort to insulate the defense budget from additional cuts that are sure to damage the military,” said spokesman Joe Kasper.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta in February presented his first round of budget cuts demanded by the Budget Control Act. He achieved spending targets largely by eliminating 92,000 Army and Marine Corps troops, retiring ships and aircraft, and delaying expensive new weapons systems such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
His 2013 base budget, minus war-fighting costs of $525 billion, is $5 billion less than 2012 spending and $45 billion less than what the Pentagon had planned to spend next year.
Because the budget act allows the president to exempt personnel, analysts believe a round of sequestration-dictated budget slashing would hit future weapons systems, not troops - who would be needed to fulfill operational contingencies in the Persian Gulf and the South Pacific.