GATES SEEKS $78 BILLION IN CUTS TO PENTAGON BUDGET…. As far as the House Republican leadership is concerned, lawmakers have to slash federal spending — but the defense budget, well over a half-trillion dollars, should be considered off-limits.

The Secretary of Defense disagrees.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates Thursday told Congress the administration is seeking $78 billion in cuts to the Defense budget over the next five years on top of $100 billion in efficiencies.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said after the morning briefing that he was deeply concerned about the surprising depth of the spending cuts. […]

The depth of the cuts exceeded that predicted by defense analysts and appear to show the seriousness with which the White House is pursuing deficit reduction. […]

Incoming Defense Appropriations subcommittee chairman Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) said after the meeting he was concerned about how the cuts will affect the troops and wanted to know more about how the services would be able to keep the savings they identify because the process was not detailed by Gates.

Oh, now GOP lawmakers want to hear more about the consequences of spending cuts.

It’s very common for Congress to spend billions on defense programs the Pentagon doesn’t want, but Gates has already made clear he wants to scrap a $14 billion Marine Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, delay the F-35, and consider doing away with the Slamraam missile.

The test, ironically, will be whether Republicans accuse the Obama administration of pursuing too many spending cuts.

It should be interesting. In the lead up to the midterm elections, the issue divided Republicans to a surprising degree. On the one hand, a contingent led by Marco Rubio, Sarah Palin, John Bolton and Bill Kristol, among others, have called for massive spending cuts, just so long as policymakers agree to put a fence around the Pentagon budget so it’s protected.

On the Hill, however, Republican Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Rand Paul (Ky.), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), and Johnny Isakson (Ga.) have all agreed that Pentagon spending should be on the table. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has said the same thing.

The United States now spends about as much on defense as every other country on the planet combined. Whether Republicans consider every penny entirely necessary will be evident soon enough.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.