Pro-defense lawmakers slam Pentagon cuts in dueling debt plans

The House's pro-Defense hard-liners Saturday stepped into the debt-ceiling drama, opposing the Pentagon spending levels proposed in debt plans put out by both Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) targeted Reid's debt plan.

That plan, which the House rejected Saturday, contains large but vague Defense cuts. Reid's bill would cap annual spending by the Pentagon and other agencies over the next two years at $1.2 trillion, while also assuming $1 trillion in savings as the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts wind down.

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Reid’s plan "would give the president full freedom to continue his domestic spending spree, while doing nothing to address our out of control deficit," McKeon said in a statement released Saturday. "It makes insignificant reforms to the real driver of our debt, entitlement programs, while hacking away at the dwindling resources needed by our armed forces to keep America safe."

Defense analysts question Reid's assumed war savings, saying his approach leans on shaky presumptions about how much hard-to-predict military operations will cost.

At a news conference, lawmakers said they're opposed even to the level of defense cuts included in Boehner's debt-limit proposal, which Republicans passed through the lower chamber Friday evening. 

The lawmakers distributed a chart indicating that they're willing to cut defense by $439 billion over the next decade. Boehner's bill would cut between $567 billion and $923 billion, while Reid's plan would slash $859 billion, the lawmakers said.

McKeon said Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee's defense subpanel, would fight the Boehner cuts during the appropriations process. 

"When Chairman Young gets in these negotiations on the [budget] and sits down with his counterparts in the Senate, he will fight to keep that line," McKeon said, referring to the $439 billion figure. "We have a bottom line that we're not going to go below."

McKeon and his bloc of pro-Defense GOP stalwarts want any final debt-ceiling deal to contain only around $9 billion in Pentagon cuts for 2012, John Noonan, a spokesman for the committee's Republicans told The Hill Saturday in an email.

That is the amount a House-passed version of 2012 Pentagon appropriations legislation reduced the Obama administration's $553 billion Defense budget request.

That appropriations legislation "is largely preserved by the Boehner plan" to raise the debt ceiling and cut some federal debt, Noonan said. The House passed that measure Friday, but it was quickly killed in the Senate.

Noonan called that $9 billion reduction from the administration's request "significant."

"The chairman believes anything below that number could harm our men and women in uniform, and our military’s ability to keep America safe," Noonan said.

McKeon said entitlement programs, not Pentagon spending, should be slashed to pay down the $14 trillion federal debt.

And the HASC chairman also joined into the trading of incendiary rhetoric of the debt-ceiling battle, charging the administration and Senate Democrats with cutting Defense to fund a domestic "spending spree."

"This president and Senate allies have, for three straight years, tried to pay for massive and irresponsible increases in domestic spending on the shoulders of our troops, severing funding for our military by nearly half a trillion dollars," McKeon said. "That policy has failed. Our debt has exploded, while our military has withered."

The latter points echoes what the vice chiefs of staff of the four military services told House and Senate panels this week. But it is unclear just how worn out the military's planes, vehicles, ships and other equipment is after a decade of war.

Only in the last few weeks have military leaders spoken so loudly about a deteriorating force structure. Some Defense observers wonder how much erosion has occurred after a decade of growing annual Pentagon budgets and massive war spending bills, which the services have been using to tend to their equipment.

McKeon rejected the notion of raising revenues to cover those costs.

"You can always send in more to the Treasury if you like, but we will not support a tax increase," McKeon said at the news conference. 

This story was updated at 4 p.m.