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WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey called Thursday for compromise on the defense budget, repeatedly imploring Congress to work with the Pentagon to avoid gridlock or a hollow force.

“We do not have to choose between national security and fiscal security, but that does not mean that we do not have to make tough choices,” Panetta said in a Pentagon news conference. “Defense should not be exempt from doing its share to reduce the deficit.”

The defense authorization bill passed by the House Armed Services Committee in the early hours Thursday morning added $4 billion to the budget proposal submitted by President Barack Obama and the Pentagon.

Panetta warned against reversing the Defense Department’s “very difficult decisions” to reduce spending, saying every pet project protected by a member of Congress could take funds away from a program critical to national security.

“There is no free lunch here. Every dollar that is added will have to be offset by cuts in national security,” Panetta said. “If we’re prevented from retiring aging ships and aircraft that no longer fit strategic requirements, then Congress would be forcing us to look elsewhere for savings.”

Not allowing a gradual drawdown of forces could require the Pentagon to cut training and equipment, Panetta said, sacrificing readiness and leading to a weakened force.

“We cannot cut a half a trillion dollars from the defense budget and not cause some pain,” he said. “We can do this, but we have to do this together.”

Dempsey called the budget submitted by the Pentagon “a responsible investment in America’s security,” and asked members of Congress to consider the repercussions “before giving us weapons we don’t need or giving up on reforms we do need.”

“I appreciate the difficulty of the decisions [members of Congress] face,” Dempsey said, but Congress must work with the DOD to preserve the balance he said was built into the budget.

Of the bill passed by the House committee, Panetta said, “It’s not balanced, it’s not fair,” and it’s headed for gridlock in the Senate.

“Nothing will happen without compromise,” he said.

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