GOP plans East Coast missile defense shield to counter Iranian nuclear threat

A new Republican plan to set up a missile defense site on the East Coast has attracted election-year fireworks, with Democrats accusing the GOP of pushing the idea to undercut President Obama’s national-security credentials. 

Democrats say Republicans are playing politics, but GOP members hit back saying the site is necessary to get ahead of the rising threat of Iran’s missile development and to plug a gap in U.S. missile defenses.

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The issue is shaping up to be one of the most contentious at Wednesday’s House Armed Services Committee markup, where Democrats are planning multiple amendments to try to strip out $100 million that was included to jump-start the East Coast site. 

The Republican proposal calls for the East Coast site, which would be the third in the country, to be operational by the beginning of 2016.

Democrats contend the total cost would be $4 billion. Republicans counter that the price tag would be half of that amount.

“This is a political move,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who intends to introduce an amendment Wednesday to strip the provision from the defense authorization bill. “Every time the election comes around, the Republicans run out a national security agenda.”

It is unclear where the Obama administration stands on the matter. A White House spokesman declined to comment.

Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Republicans in Congress slammed Obama on missile defense after his “hot mic” moment in March, in which Obama told then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he needed “flexibility” until after the Nov. 6 election. 

Republican legislators have also criticized the Obama administration for considering reductions in the U.S. nuclear stockpile. 

But GOP lawmakers say the site is not about politics, and is necessary due to increased threats from Iran, as tensions between Washington and Tehran have escalated in recent months over Iran’s nuclear program. 

“You cannot open a newspaper or turn on a TV … without seeing a story of the rising threat from Iran and North Korea to mainland United States,” said Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the Strategic Forces subcommittee that included the East Coast interceptor language.

“With these emerging threats it is inevitable that an East Coast site will be necessary in order to ensure we have the ability to lessen the threats from both Iran and North Korea,” Turner told The Hill.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) weighed in on the threat to Iran on Tuesday as well, warning that Tehran has “global ambitions” in Latin America, where Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently toured.

“[Ahmadinejad’s] trip underscored the designs Iran has for expanding its influence in Latin America, and its eagerness to forge bonds with governments in the Western Hemisphere that have demonstrated a lesser interest in freedom and democracy,” Boehner said at an event Tuesday held by the Conference of the Americas.

House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee ranking member Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), who also is planning an amendment to strip the funding for the East Coast site, said the Iranian threat to the East Coast is overblown, because the Iranians don’t have the technology for a missile to reach the United States.

As the defense bill heads to a contentious marathon debate Wednesday, Armed Services Democrats say the new missile site is one of the prime examples where military spending could be cut, which will become a bigger debate later this year due to shrinking Pentagon budgets.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) submitted a base Pentagon budget of $554 billion, which was $3.7 billion higher than the president’s 2013 defense budget request and $8 billion above the spending caps set by last year’s Budget Control Act.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to use the lower top-line figure for the defense budget, setting up a showdown in conference committee.

The caps led the Pentagon to plan for a cut of $487 billion over the next decade, which Republicans have criticized and vowed to roll back. The boosted spending in the authorization bill stems from the budget of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who included increased defense spending and a cut in non-defense discretionary spending in the GOP budget.

The authorization bill includes $100 million in 2013 for the Defense Department to study the development of the East Coast interceptor, which would add to systems located in California and Alaska.

The committee report on the legislation says a “cost-effective” East Coast site “could have advantages for the defense of the United States from ballistic missiles launched from the Middle East.”

The bill directs the Missile Defense Agency to plan to deploy a land-based East Coast site by the end of 2015, though it does not specify where the site should be located. The legislation instructs the director of the Missile Defense Agency to choose three possible sites to study.

Republican aides said the missile defense landscape has changed in the past year as the U.S. missile defense program in Europe, which is supposed to be completed by 2020, faces delays. Getting an East Coast system online by 2015, one aide said, would ensure there are no gaps in the U.S. missile defense system.

While missile defense has long been an issue on which Democrats and Republicans have clashed, Democrats aren’t uniformly opposed to adding an East Coast interceptor site, said Sanchez. But the Republican plan to include the site by 2015 was “very premature,” she said, as the current system in place still needs to be fixed to be fully operational. 

“Our military leaders have told us that’s not necessary,” Sanchez told The Hill. “They want to get the kinks out of the system they currently have.”

Sanchez said the $100 million figure included in the legislation is deceptive, estimating that the total program would cost $4 billion.

Republicans claim the total cost of the program would depend on the type of program implemented, and a committee aide put an estimate for 20 ground-based interceptors at $2 billion.

Several Senate Republicans who focus on defense say they are aware of the House plan, but said they haven’t yet decided whether to back the idea.

“It’s something I’d be very interested in,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), an influential member of the Armed Services Committee.