Nevermind the McCain, here comes Inhofe

Same story, different Congress.

Before Sen. John McCain’s ranking member seat cushion has re-inflated on the Armed Services Committee dais, and before Defense Secretary Leon Panetta starts packing for Monterrey, the new top committee Republican, Sen. Jim Inhofe, of Oklahoma, has picked up the minority’s 2011 talking points on sequestration and launched a full salvo across the Pentagon’s bow.

“Rather than simply blaming Congress as you did repeatedly in your press conference,” Inhofe wrote in a letter to Panetta released Thursday, “in it is my hope that you and the President will work with Congress.”

Meanwhile, Panetta, in Italy, once again blasted Congress for not eliminating the sequester threat and “doing this to us.”

Here’s the back story. Since late 2011, when it became apparent Congress was not going to make a deal before the sequester “trigger” was pulled in January, the top GOP members of the Senate Armed Services Committee began a public campaign pressuring President Obama to enter into talks directly with congressional national security leaders, like themselves. Anything short of Obama’s personal participation, they argued, was shorting national security itself.

To no one's surprise, the White House ignored McCain’s request, though it was repeated for months. And months.

Now Inhofe, the new ranking member, has renewed the call for Obama -- and Panetta, too -- to work with Congress on sequester. He also requests yet another Pentagon assessment of just how devastating sequestration cuts would be to the services and how DOD plans to implement them, should they occur. The new sequestration deadline is March 2. Inhofe requests the service impact study “as soon as possible” and a Joint Staff study of sequestration’s impact on military training and readiness, “as well as the risk of a hollow force,” within 30 days.

“The threat of sequestration has loomed for well over a year and I find it deeply troubling that despite these repeated requests from Congress, you are just now instructing Department Components to conduct this long-overdue assessment and implementation plan,” Inhofe wrote.

If Panetta complies, this would be at least the third time the Pentagon spells out what sequestration would require of the Defense Department. In late 2011, Panetta sent to the Hill a serious letter (with a firm tongue-in-its-cheek) arguing that Congress’ mandate to spread cuts across-the-board would result in interesting choices: like cutting one of the three legs of the nuclear triad of submarines, bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Since then, DOD has sent other detailed guesstimates of how it would meet the spending cut requirements. On Monday, the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent a letter warning again of a “hollow” force should Congress not avoid the automatic spending cuts before the March deadline.

On Thursday, visiting U.S. soldiers based in Vicenza, Italy, Panetta said to the troops, “So here we are. We're almost a half -- you know, a half a year into the next fiscal year, and we're running at the level we thought we were going to get for [fiscal year 2014]. Now if suddenly they cut us, and then if this damn sequester goes into effect, we're facing huge cuts, largely that would have to come out of readiness and maintenance. And if it happens, one of the things I've got to do is send a notice out to civilian employees that we may have to furlough them in order to be able to secure the savings we need to meet what -- you know, what Congress has done to us.”

“I had a press conference that laid all of this out,” he continued, “laid it all out for the Congress, laid it all out for the country.  This has got to be dealt with.”

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call