GOP, Dems fight over whether debt deal really mandates $350B in Pentagon cuts

Republicans and Democrats are fighting intensely over the true size of the defense spending cuts made under the August debt deal.

Both sides agree the oft-mentioned and widely reported $350 billion figure is nowhere to be found in the Budget Control Act and that it became conventional wisdom because of a fact sheet put out by the White House.

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But all agreements end there.

Republican aides are using the lack of clear legislative language to question whether there is a legal order to cut that much from the annual military budget — reductions they forcefully oppose.

But Democrats counter that the Budget Control Act mandates spending caps for specific areas of the federal government, meaning those big Pentagon cuts are required to fit within those limits.

Soon after the debt deal was reached in late July, the White House issued a fact sheet saying the bill would force $350 billion in Defense Department cuts over 10 years. 

But, to the frustration of just about everyone involved in enacting the cuts, the legislation does not explicitly order that level of Defense Department funding shrinkage.

The $350 billion figure was part of the talks between the Obama administration and GOP leaders about how to meet those restrictions that spawned the debt-deal legislation, Democratic sources said.

Republicans disagree.

“There was no ‘gentlemen’s agreement,’ ” one senior Senate GOP aide told The Hill. “That is purely administration spin.”

A House GOP appropriations source sounded a similar tone.

“There was no agreement. That $350 billion number came out of the blue. The White House just pulled it from nowhere,” the source told The Hill on Friday. “It was not in the legislation itself. There was no estimate from the White House.”

Injecting the $350 billion Pentagon cut into Washington’s bloodstream in the final frantic hours before Congress approved the debt legislation was necessary to secure enough votes to get the bill through the House, some GOP aides said.

“It was a scare tactic,” the Republican appropriations source said. “It was merely a legislative-lobbying effort to get enough Democrats on board to vote for the bill by saying they’re going to cut defense.”

Republican leaders have largely remained coy about just how deeply the debt deal would cut the annual DOD budget — but they have not denied that the $350 billion figure was a product of late-July negotiations.

“The Budget Control Act provides sufficient flexibility to protect defense spending, and it’s up to our members to do the hard work it’s going to take to accomplish that goal,” a senior GOP leadership aide told The Hill when asked to respond to comments from Republican aides to the contrary.

A White House spokesman declined to comment Monday, referring a reporter to the Office of Management and Budget. At press time, an OMB spokeswoman had not responded to an inquiry.

For their part, several Democratic sources and defense analysts held firm that the $350 billion figure came out of White House-congressional negotiations.

A well-connected Democrat and Washington veteran has said publicly that the debt-deal talks did indeed include the $350 billion figure.

“The deal itself is pretty easy to understand. It’s in two parts. The first part is they cut the budget deficits by $900 billion — $350 from the defense budget, $550 from the non-defense budget,” Erskine Bowles, a Democratic stalwart and co-chairman of a federal deficit commission, told a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill audience recently.

“Some of that is interest costs that we won’t have, and most of the individual items in those cuts were agreed to in those conferences that occurred between the Republicans and Democrats in [Vice President] Joe Biden’s office,” said the plugged-in Bowles. “They haven’t been publicly released, but I understand they are real and there’s no gimmicks attached to them.”

Matthew Leatherman, a national security analyst with the Stimson Center, called the ongoing dispute about just what the Budget Control Act mandated “a political one.” 

“The law itself says nothing specific on the matter,” Leatherman said in an email Monday. “Pentagon resources are already tightening, but the final numbers are still to be determined.”

As the fight over what those final cut amounts should be rages on both sides of the Potomac River, the Pentagon is leading a soup-to-nuts review to determine how to square the funding reduction with expected national security needs.

Republican lawmakers have used blunt language to slam the debt-deal cuts, and in predicting the impact of another round of budget reductions that could be triggered if a special congressional panel fails.

GOP members and aides have said if the military is forced to eat $1 trillion in cuts over a decade, it would struggle to hold its own against peers like China; the U.S. defense industrial base would atrophy; and a return to a military draft would be likely.

Democratic lawmakers are more open to reducing a military budget that nearly doubled in the decade after the Sept. 11 attacks.

In an interview Friday, House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said, “I feel our committee should be doing just what the administration is doing: a comprehensive review of national security needs.”

That study will inform the administration and Congress on how best to enact the cuts Smith and other Democrats say were the product of the debt-deal talks.

Smith called some of the dire talk coming from GOP hawks about budget cuts simply “being as alarmist as possible” to build support against any Pentagon funding cuts.

Senior Pentagon officials say cutting $350 billion over a decade will require “hard choices,” but is achievable. One DOD official said Monday that lawmakers must understand that decisions about Pentagon spending cannot be made “in isolation.”