Ashton B. Carter, left, and Chuck Hagel walk together after the closing of the National POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony.

Ashton B. Carter, left, and Chuck Hagel walk together after the closing of the National POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony. (Sun L. Vega/Courtesy of the Defense Department)

WASHINGTON — With the sequestration deadline just hours away and Congress gone for the weekend, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Friday they were still holding out hope that lawmakers will reach a deal in the coming days to stop the worst impacts of the automatic budget cuts.

“I have confidence in the president and the Congress that decisions, consensus can be reached, at some point, to avert tremendous damage to this institution. This is the security of the United States of America we’re talking about,” Hagel told reporters at his first Pentagon news conference.

The first effects of the cuts would be reductions in training, flight hours and equipment maintenance, and tens of thousands of Defense Department employees will receive notices this month about furloughs that could start in April, Carter said.

And as sequester continues, Hagel said, “we will be forced to assume more risk, steps that will progressively have far-reaching effects.”

Yet despite the challenges, the defense secretary said he and the service leaders would “do what is necessary” to keep America safe.

“Today, America has the best fighting force in the world, capable of responding to any challenge. This unnecessary budget crisis makes that job much harder. But we will continue to ensure America’s security,” he said.

Hagel had an hour-long meeting with the joint chiefs of staff Friday afternoon to discuss the consequence of the sequester, he said.

Carter said the Pentagon is “doing everything we can to minimize lasting damage, but we can’t eliminate it.”

The deputy secretary rejected the idea that the Defense Department could easily absorb the cuts because of the drawdown in Afghanistan and the end of the war in Iraq.

“We should only get the money that we deserve and that the nation needs,” Carter said. “We understand that as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, that our overall budget authority will go down. … Sequestration is a different matter.”

Carter said he is hopeful that Congress will find a way to stop sequestration, but noted he has been warning of its “deleterious” affects for more than a year.

“We have been trying now for 16 months to sound the alarm about sequestration,” he said. “All of this is going [to be] abundantly obvious starting (Saturday).” Twitter: @jhlad

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