Lost somewhat in the fight over the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the upcoming standoff over the debt ceiling is the defense sequestration. If you will recall, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the cuts would be devastating. In the campaign, the president said he would take care of that, and he has consistently argued that it was the Republicans who were holding the troops hostage to protect the rich from tax hikes. The GOP has given on the taxes, but the troops and our national security are still being held hostage by the president, who would only agree to delay the sequestration, not to revise or eliminate the cuts to national security.

Chuck Hagel (Dave Kaup/Reuters) Chuck Hagel (Dave Kaup/Reuters)

Overall, Obama has not had the troops’ back. (Since he’s been getting informal advice from Chuck Hagel, it will be interesting to know if he approved of these cuts.) To the contrary, Obama utilized Robert Gates to extract multiple rounds of cuts. In the $487 billion in cuts before we get to sequestration, the Obama defense cuts eliminated 80,000 soldiers, 20,000 Marines and approximately 20,000 from the U.S. Air Force and Navy for a total of 120,000. Obama also took a chunk out of military health care. The burden on those still in service becomes greater with deployments lengthened.

Then we get to the sequestration. That would entail laying off another 200,000 troops, cutting more weapons systems and delaying modernization. That will affect all those service personnel who will remain as well as the vets who will find jobs hard to come by. The House Armed Service Committee found:

Cuts of this magnitude require a fundamental cultural shift in the commitment to DoD school systems, military commissaries and exchanges, and other morale, welfare, and recreation programs, significantly reducing support of military families and retirees. Family readiness will be degraded. There will be a shift away from military involvement in local communities. As well, these cuts will reduce investment in the Defense Health Program including in-house care, private sector care, education and health related information technology. Wounded warrior care and support will be dramatically reduced.

The armed services committee should be interesting. Will Democrats like Sen. Kay Hagan (N.C.) stand up to Hagel and demand the troops not be held hostage in the president’s class-warfare game? According to an independent study from George Mason University, sequestration would cost North Carolina more than 11,000 defense-related jobs. It is hard for self-styled moderate to claim she is tough on defense while approving the pre-sequestration cuts and objecting to replacing sequestration cuts with spending reductions already passed by the Republican House.

We know that the sequestration was the White House’s idea. If Hagel had been Pentagon chief at the time, would he have dissuaded the president from presenting the Pentagon as a sacrificial lamb? Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) can be a lump on the log in the confirmation hearings or he can demand the sequestration, which would cost Colorado over 17,000 jobs, be cancelled.

There is no area of defense and no part of the country that won’t feel the impact. The House committee noted that the cuts include:

Cuts to nuclear weapons inventories, homeland missile defense, and satellite space launch capabilities (creating critical communications and surveillance gaps). A threefold effect on our nuclear deterrent is anticipated – (1) we will have less early warning about a nuclear missile launch, (2) for the first time in seven decades, allies and adversaries will question our ability to provide a nuclear response to an attack, and (3) our ability to defend against incoming missile attack against the United States will be degraded.

Alaska has always been a critical part of missile defense. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) can either roll over because the president wants Hagel or grill the nominee and refuse to confirm someone so cavalier about national security.

Discussion to date has focused on Iran, Israel and Hagel’s background, but his cheerleading for the evisceration of the defense budget, which has a real human cost in the military and in every state, is just as critical. The president has put Democratic senators in the untenable spot of defending a nominee and policies that will cause them much political grief. They can be tough on national security or support the president’s nominee, but not both.