White House sides with Senate on bill to freeze defense spending

The White House has weighed in on the congressional debate about Pentagon spending by siding with a Senate bill that would shrink the Defense Department’s 2012 budget request by $26 billion.

The endorsement came from White House Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew in a letter obtained by The Hill that was sent last week to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).

The letter said the Senate bill’s $513 billion proposed budget, which essentially freezes the agency’s budget for a second, consecutive year “will sustain our strong military.”

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The House would provide $530 billion in its 2012 defense bill.

“The administration strongly supports the Senate’s allocation of funding,” Lew wrote in the letter. “The DoD funding level, a freeze, will sustain our strong military.”

Ranking member of the Senate panel Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), as well as the chairman and ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, Reps. Harold Rogers (R-Kent.) and Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), received identical letters. 

The Senate Appropriations Committee overwhelmingly passed the 2012 Pentagon spending measure on Sept. 15. It is unclear when — or if — the Senate will consider the bill.

The House already approved its funding measure, meaning a House-Senate conference will determine a final funding amount.

The Obama administration in February sought $553 billion in its Pentagon budget request, but that was before the deal to raise the debt ceiling, known as the Budget Control Act (BCA), placed caps on federal spending.

By endorsing a continued Pentagon budget freeze, Lew has ensured a military “build-down” is underway, one analyst said.

With the letter, “the administration has officially endorsed a hard defense freeze in [2012] in order to meet the BCA’s security spending caps,” Matthew Leatherman, an analyst at the Stimson Center, said Monday.

Leatherman said this is exactly how defense build-downs typically work.

“Though it may be easy to lose sight of the underlying trend between rumors of secret savings packages and debates about sequester, the fact remains that Pentagon resources are heading steadily down,” Leatherman said. “The BCA’s security cap made it difficult to increase military resources above inflation in [2012], and this newly-announced administration position makes that even less likely. There should be no doubt that the build-down has begun.”

The Lew letter does raise concerns with some of the funding cuts proposed in the Senate’s bill. The OMB boss did not list specific funding cuts the administration opposes, however.

Senate appropriators want to slash $695 million from the Pentagon's $9.7 billion F-35 funding request. It would freeze F-35 production levels at the 2011 rate through 2013 because the test program could not use all the new jets that would be produced.

The panel also approved a provision in the bill that would terminate the Army-Marine Corps’ Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) program. Other platforms would meet the services' needs, the bill states.

The Pentagon plans to fight to keep the JLTV program alive, according to Army officials and industry sources.

Lew also urged lawmakers to avoid cuts to the State Department and other foreign operations accounts.

“An unbalanced approach” between military and international spending “will not serve America’s national security or its vital interests around the world,” he wrote.

The House is pushing big foreign aid cuts as Washington seeks to right its fiscal ship.

The lower chamber’s Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee, for example, wants to cut billions in spending, including a 27 percent cut in the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) operating budget; an 18 percent cut to development assistance funding; and new stipulations for aid to nations like Pakistan, according to InterAction, a group of nonprofit organizations that work with poor populations.

Analysts say State Department and foreign aid projects could be cut further as lawmakers, administration officials and military brass work to keep their pet Defense programs funded.

“Today’s real question is: Exactly how much are we willing to take from diplomacy and development in order to delay deeper defense reductions,” Leatherman said.