Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) and Republican vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), answer questions during a campaign event in Fayetteville, N.C., on Thursday. (Sara D. Davis/Associated Press)

Paul Ryan said Thursday that if Congress fails to pass legislation averting $500 billion in automatic defense cuts set to take effect in January, a Romney-Ryan administration would work to undo those cuts “retroactively.”

The statement by the presumptive Republican vice presidential nominee marks the first time that the GOP White House ticket has floated the idea of fast-tracking Republican-authored legislation that would replace the looming across-the-board defense cuts with trims elsewhere in the federal budget.

“I don’t want to get too technical, but in January our intention is, if we don’t fix it in the lame duck, is to fix it retroactively once a new session of Congress takes place,” Ryan said in response to a question posed at a roundtable discussion at a defense-related nonprofit organization not far from Fort Bragg.

“Now, we believe that we have a procedural way in the Senate to advance that legislation very quickly and get it to the next president of the United States — who I believe is going to be Mitt Romney — to pass it into law and retroactively prevent that sequester from taking place in January,” Ryan continued.

Ryan was referring to legislation passed by the Republican-led House in May that would replace the Defense Department cuts with reductions to food stamps and an array of other programs. The measure passed the House with the support of 218 Republicans and no Democrats.

The scenario sketched out by Ryan would appear to hinge on Republicans holding the House, winning the White House and retaking control of the Senate.

Even so, it’s unclear how such a move to “retroactively” restore the defense funding might work. The across-the-board cuts are part of a $1.2 trillion trim to both defense and non-defense spending over the next decade set to take effect in early January if Congress doesn’t act. The cuts were set into motion by last summer’s debt-ceiling deal, which Ryan voted for.

If the GOP ticket wins in November, Romney and Ryan would not take office until Jan. 21, after the first round of cuts are made.

“The Romney-Ryan ticket is dedicated to protecting America’s economy and national security from the impact of President Obama’s devastating defense cuts. If the President will not lead on this issue before January, we will,” Romney campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said in a statement.

Earlier at the roundtable, Ryan, who had aimed to hammer Democrats for the looming automatic defense cuts, appeared to get caught off guard when an attendee asked him about recent remarks made by Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, regarding criticism of President Obama by a group of Special Operations Forces veterans.

In a question-and-answer session before a crowd of about 100 people at the Partnership for Defense Innovation, about 10 miles down the road from Fort Bragg, Ryan was asked by a woman in the crowd, “Can you tell me what the response of the campaign will be concerning the comments of Gen. Dempsey?”

“Are you talking about Gen. Dempsey’s comments about how devastating the sequester will be?” Ryan responded.

The woman replied that she was concerned about Dempsey’s recent statement “that military retirees, et cetera, should not speak out.”

“Oh, I’m — I’m not familiar with that,” Ryan said. “So, I’ve had (Defense) Secretary (Leon) Panetta and Gen. Dempsey come to my committee and testify on the sequester. And according to Gen. Dempsey — .

The woman interrupted Ryan again in an apparent effort to clarify her question, and Ryan responded, “I can’t comment on that.”

“Please look into it,” the woman said.

The question was regarding comments by Dempsey to Fox News this week in response to a 22-minute video released last week by the group Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund, in which several veterans sharply criticize Obama for alleged national security leaks and accuse him of unduly taking credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden.

“If someone uses the uniform, whatever uniform it is, for partisan politics, I’m disappointed by that, because I think it does erode that bond of trust that we have with the American people,” Dempsey told Fox News.

The remarks have garnered a significant amount of attention in the military community, but Ryan did not appear to be familiar with them on Thursday.

Instead, it was Rep. Renee L. Ellmers (R-N.C.), a freshman member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who was co-hosting Thursday’s roundtable, who stepped in to answer the woman’s question.

“I think, if I’m not mistaken, are you referring to the recent release of statements by some former special forces?” she asked the woman.

“You know, I’ll just say on a personal note, just as these gentlemen are here who are former generals and have served in our military, I think you should certainly have the right to speak your mind,” she continued, gesturing to several veterans onstage at the event. “I think I understand where General Dempsey is coming from. However, I think that this is a very important issue and certainly a First Amendment right, and they have every right to speak out if they feel they need to.”

After the event, Ryan spokesman Michael Steel dismissed the notion that Ryan was caught flatfooted by the question and said that the congressman was “clearly familiar with the topic” but that he initially thought the query was about sequestration, the theme of the event.

“He certainly wasn’t unable (to respond); it’s just that congresswoman Ellmers answered the question,” he said.

Steel declined to say, however, whether Ryan agreed with Ellmers on the matter.

“I haven’t heard him address the issue,” he said.

In a brief interview after the event, Ellmers said that she also believed the phrasing of the question had thrown Ryan off.

“I think the way the nice lady asked the question, I think that it didn’t maybe register with him that that’s what it was about,” she said.