- Leon Panetta expected to recommend smaller-than-anticipated increases in military pay
- Panetta steps up rhetoric about impact on Pentagon if automatic spending cuts take effect
- Obama recently called on Congress to come up with an alternative to the automatic cuts
- Two Republicans propose alternative to cuts in order to protect the military
The showdown over who will bear the brunt of deep cuts to government spending has become a game of political poker with the nation's troops caught in the middle, political experts and members of the military say.
As he prepares to leave office, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta sounded a dire warning about the need to limit military pay to a 1% increase in 2014, effectively decreasing troop salaries next year, if the automatic cuts, called sequester, go into effect, an agency official told CNN.
"This shadow, the shadow of sequestration, this legislative madness that was designed to be so bad, so bad, that no one in their right mind would let it happen," Panetta said in a speech at Georgetown University on Wednesday.
"For those of you who have ever seen (the movie) 'Blazing Saddles,' it is the scene of the sheriff putting the gun to his head in order to establish law and order. That is sequestration."
The Pentagon has calculated that the Labor Department's 2014 Employment Cost Index is expected to be above 1%, but wants to still reduce pay because of "budget uncertainties," a government official told CNN.
In 2013, a 1.7% increase was approved, based on the index, which has been the basis for military pay for the past several years.
Panetta is stepping up rhetoric about the impact of sequestration on the Pentagon if Congress does not agree to a plan in coming weeks to avert it.
Sequestration would cut across the government, but would hit the Pentagon especially hard. The military would face roughly $500 million in spending cuts over 10 years on top of a similar amount already in the pipeline.
President Barack Obama previously walled off the military from a reduction in pay so if this current compensation plan goes into effect, it's widely seen as "cutting our pay," one military officer familiar with the plan told CNN. "It's a smart move, it puts it in Congress' hands."
Panetta's comments followed Obama's call on Tuesday for a short-term agreement to avert sequestration, which was created by Congress in 2011 to be so draconian that lawmakers would strike a budget deal and avoid the cuts.
But now, the deadline for action is coming up next month and there's no deal in sight.
Top Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services committees released their own approach for temporarily staving off the brunt of those cuts by cutting some federal jobs through attrition.
"America's military has absorbed $487 billion in defense cuts under President Obama, with $500 billion yet to come with sequestration. Refusing to consider reforms to the mandatory spending that is driving our debt crisis, while using our troops as a piggy bank to keep unsustainable spending programs on life support, will have both fiscal and strategic consequences," Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote in a statement.
All of this amounts to some pretty high stakes poker, political experts say.
"Scare talk about the effects of spending cuts is common in these circumstances. Mostly, it's a parade of imaginary horribles. Although this time, the magnitude of the cuts, especially in defense, gives greater force to the dire predictions," said Ross Baker, a Rutgers political science professor.
Still, the specter of potential cuts worries those on the front lines and their families.
"I feel like when things get tough and the economy goes and they look at cuts they immediately take benefits or pay or housing allowances," said Vicky Cody, author of "Your Soldier, Your Army: A Parent's Guide", the wife of retired Army Gen. Richard Cody and the mother of two members of the military.
"These are the kids who are deploying. Regardless of how people who feel about the war, this is a group of people who need to be compensated for what they do not taken away from," she said.
Commenters on the story on CNN.com who identified themselves as members of the military were similarly frustrated.
"I am disgusted by this," wrote one commenter who identified as AFMEDIC. "I am in the US military and currently deployed. I get to see and hear what happens to the rest of my military brothers and sisters putting their lives on the line for a country. It is an ugly reality. And what are they getting blown up for? Why do we spend days, months, and even years away from our families for? For a country whose leaders don't believe we are worthy enough to get a decent raise to take care of the families that have to deal with the consequences of our jobs. We are cutting budget everywhere else, why can't they cut their own salary? Where are the priorities of these people??"
A commenter who identified himself as Philip wrote that lots of Americans aren't getting pay raises in the current economy.
"A 1% pay raise is more of a raise than many Americans have received the last few years combined. Welcome to the new economy!" he wrote. "And don't give me this 'hero' BS, as many in the military only joined because they couldn't find jobs here. In the military they preach of being part of a team, well enjoy teaming with the civilians who also face hardships in getting paid."
Hyperbole is all part of an effort to get the other side to blink first, Baker said.
"The number of workers likely to be laid off as a result of the sequester is basically imaginary although there will almost certainly be a slight surge in unemployment," Baker said. "I really don't think that the Pentagon will cut troop salaries which would hinder recruitment and retention. It's much more likely that weapons systems will take the hit."
It's not the first time both the administration and congressional Republicans have tried to call each other's bluff over the spending cuts. Last year, President Obama told thousands of veterans at the National Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars '"Stop playing politics with our military.'"