House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggested Thursday morning she could support a version of the president’s proposed spending freeze that included defense spending.
Pelosi stressed at her weekly press conference that the entire defense budget “should not be exempted” from the freeze, as proposed by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address Wednesday night. She added such “drastic action” might be necessary to tame the nation's growing, $1.3 trillion federal deficit.
But the Speaker drew a sharp line between support for the troops, and support for military contractors. She said men and women in uniform should not be subject to a freeze, but that “I don’t think that we have to protect military contractors.”
“And I want to make that distinction very clearly,” Pelosi continued. “I do not think the entire defense budget should be exempted.”
“We want them to have everything they need,” Pelosi said
of military forces abroad and their families. “But we do not support an
entitlement program for overruns in defense contracting,” she quickly added,
noting millions could be saved if lawmakers ensured Defense contracts did not
overshoot spending targets.
Pentagon acquisition programs have suffered from huge cost overruns.
A March 2009 GAO report found that the Pentagon’s 96 largest weapon acquisition programs had cost overruns of $296 billion and were on average 22 months behind schedule. Those cost overruns exceed the salaries and health care costs for the entire military for the two full years.
Obama’s proposed spending freeze would not cover the Pentagon.
It would cap spending at current levels for all discretionary areas of the budget — about one-sixth of what Congress authorizes every year. The move is expected to save about $250 billion over the next three years, White House officials have said.
Obama’s general push for fiscal discipline has won the praise of all lawmakers, but many seemed to differ this week on how to approach it.
Republicans criticized the president's call for a freeze on Wednesday, charging it arrives only after Democrats enacted huge spending increases. Some Democrats even worry it could touch areas that desperately need funding during a period of economic decline.
“We’ll have to look see what the president’s talking about cutting,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Wednesday. “We have to make sure that we have money for education, and also police services and firefighting among other things."
Extending the freeze to defense spending could invoke the ire of lawmakers who maintain that military dollars should be left untouched in times of war.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told The Hill on Thursday that lawmakers should instead “scrub the budget,” as they do every year, in order to eliminate any waste.
"I think it's probably impractical and unrealistic in the middle of a war,” Levin said of freezing spending in the Defense budget.
“I think you can target particular programs, but that means you've got to do it program by program; you can't just put a cap on it in the middle of a war because if you don't reach that, then what do you do? Cut across the board?"
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) later echoed that sentiment, stressing Congress had to spend defense dollars "wisely" but could not use a freeze to control costs.
“With our nation fighting two wars, I do not favor a freeze on defense spending," he told The Hill. "We must continue efforts to rein in spending where we can, while providing what is needed to keep our country safe and take care of our service members and their families.”
For Pelosi, the spending freeze, and whether at least some Defense spending should be a part of it, introduces another complex battle for her party.
Centrist Democrats worried about the mid-term elections are taking heat for Washington spending, but liberal Democrats worry a spending freeze could hurt constituents and cut off help to people suffering through the recession.
This story was updated at 3:52 p.m. and 7:20 p.m.