Fort Benning's "Stone Gate."

Fort Benning's "Stone Gate." (U.S. Army)

WASHINGTON – The Army has warned Congress about budget cuts for months and this week the service brought the pain to lawmakers’ front doors.

Its plan to step up troop cuts – 40,000 over the next two years – will hit states and congressional districts across the country and sparked widespread local outcry. The mayor of Columbus, Ga., said it will be like “losing a large corporation” when the Army trims 3,402 soldiers from Fort Benning due to a tight budget.

The Army’s unexpected announcement has forced a gut check among House and Senate lawmakers after the service issued dire warnings about a 2016 defense budget that it says could hurt readiness. The cuts were the latest move in a larger political battle that has pitted the Obama administration and Pentagon against a Congress that has been unable or unwilling to head off automatic spending cuts slated to kick in this fall.

After the Army announcement, Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, shot back with a statement that he was “demanding answers” on the justification for the reductions in his state.

“I have talked in great detail with [Army] Secretary [John] McHugh today and will continue to fight to see to it that we preserve every soldier in Georgia that we can,” he said.

Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan said he was “extremely frustrated” that his state of Alaska is set to lose over 2,700 soldiers by 2017.

“Along with thousands of Alaskans, I find this decision devastating far beyond what it means to our state economy, but what it means to America’s defense,” Sullivan said.

In all, 17 states will lose soldiers as the Army compresses its three-year plan for post-war downsizing into just two years because of a lack of money.

The Army has said the faster pace is necessary due to a law passed by Congress in 2011 to reduce the federal deficit by imposing a decade of cuts on defense spending. The Budget Control Act has forced the service’s budget down every year since it was enacted, according to the Army.

The cuts sent shockwaves through Congress this week after the Army spent months testifying against lawmakers’ current plan. The House and Senate want to keep the caps in place and instead, pump extra money into an emergency overseas war fund.

McHugh and Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno put the Army’s budget position in stark terms during joint testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.

“This ongoing budgetary unpredictability is neither militarily nor fiscally responsible. … Even as demand for Army forces is growing, budget cuts are forcing us to reduce end strength to dangerously low levels,” they said in the written testimony. “We face an ‘ends’ and ‘means’ mismatch between requirements and resources available.”

President Barack Obama has also said he will veto any budget that keeps the spending caps in place.

It remains unclear whether a deeply divided Congress can find a solution to the automatic budget cuts imposed by the 2011 law and provide the Army enough funding to stretch out or halt troop reductions.

Fiscal conservatives have been battling with defense hawks over the issue. But the Army’s announcement prompted lawmakers in affected states to renew calls to end the caps.

Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., represents Fort Huachuca where the Army has said 114 soldiers – about 5 percent of its personnel -- will be cut.

“Our military budget decisions need to be driven by strategy and the best way to defend American lives and our interests, not a meat-cleaver approach to budgeting,” said McSally, a retired Air Force colonel and A-10 Thunderbolt pilot. “I’ve repeatedly called for a reversal of the across-the-board cuts established in 2011 and will continue to work with my colleagues on solutions that ensure our national defense and the safety and security of our troops overseas.” Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

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