By Larry Shaughnessy
The man charged with protecting America from threats is worried about one threat coming from Capitol Hill.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, once a congressman himself, said Tuesday "partisan paralysis in our political system is threatening our ability to tackle these problems and find the solutions." And failure to break the deadlock may jeopardize America's leadership in the world, he said in a speech at the Wilson Center.
Panetta was clear he blames no particular party for the paralysis.
"Congress must be a responsible partner in this effort. They have as much responsibility for the defense of this country as we in the executive branch. This must be a partnership, Republican and Democrat alike," he said in what was called his first major policy speech since becoming secretary of defense.
Panetta said his department had already found about $150 billion in savings under a plan started by his predecessor, Robert Gates. And he said they've since found another $60 billion in what he called "efficiencies," which in Washington usually means elimination of waste and overspending.
He hinted he may have to postpone some upgrades to existing weapons programs as another way of saving money. But he would still have $240 billion in cuts to make, if not much more.
Congress has a so-called super committee looking into finding more budget cuts across the entire federal government. Many conservatives on Capitol Hill have said the Defense Department should be exempt. But if the committee fails to reach agreement, the terms of last summer's budget deal requires an action known as "sequestration," which would mean about half a trillion dollars in cuts at the Defense Department alone.
Panetta called the idea "mindless," saying sequestration would "do catastrophic damage to our military and its ability to protect the country."
Some in Congress have said that they are so opposed to sequestration cuts that they would take steps to make sure that part of the budget deal would never go into effect.