Defense hawks claw Pentagon budget

Greg Nash

President Obama’s new defense budget is getting a rough reception on Capitol Hill, drawing strong opposition from GOP defense hawks and tepid support from Democrats.

Republicans say the budget, which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel previewed on Monday, endangers U.S. national security by reducing the size of the military during a time of growing threats.

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“We live in an ever increasingly dangerous world and this budget is out of touch with reality,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) vowed to kill the defense budget request outright.

“We are going to kill it, not let it happen,” he said, adding it was, “ill-conceived, ill-designed, bad defense policy, detached from reality — I am running out of adjectives.”

The defense budget request, which will be released on March 4 and is subject to congressional approval, would shrink the Army to between 440,000 and 450,000 troops, reduce operations for 11 Navy cruisers and cut the Air Force’s fleet of A-10 attack jets and U-2 spy planes. It would also cap military pay raises and reduce military benefits while calling for a new round of base closings. 

“I just think it is taking the Army down to a level where you restrain your ability to fight the war that comes your way. The best way to fight a war is deterrence, and I think readiness at the number you are talking about, I just don’t think [the Army] is equipped for the threats you face,” Graham said.

The top Republican on the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee echoed Graham and said he was skeptical of Obama’s plan.

“While we will consider President Obama’s budget, I will be skeptical of proposals to cut military benefits, close bases, or do anything that might diminish the effectiveness of the National Guard, Reserves or active duty forces,” Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) said. 

The budget is the first Hagel has been able to shape since being confirmed as Pentagon chief last year in a 58-41 vote. His nomination drew the fiercest opposition for a Defense secretary in more than two decades.

McCain said he thought Hagel was doing a “good job” but wished he had consulted with Congress before unveiling the budget request. 

“Many of the cuts that they are proposing will not be enacted. It’s obvious these cuts are ignoring the lessons of history,” McCain said.

Democrats say they are reserving judgment on the budget proposal until they can review it in detail, but they predicted changes would have to be made. 

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he had “plenty” of concerns about the suggested cuts, but added that he was “not going to say one of them is more problematical than the other one” until he could review the entire request. 

“We have to go through those [proposals] very carefully,” added Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who is chairman of the Appropriations defense subcommittee. “There are some of those I accept, and some of those I don’t, but I’ll wait to take a look at the whole package.” 

Instead, Democrats are coalescing around Hagel’s call for a reversal of the congressional budget caps known as sequestration beyond 2015. 

The recent Bipartisan Budget Act relieved $21 billion in sequestration cuts in 2014 and $9 billion in 2015, but the cuts of $50 billion per year would hit the department again in 2016. 

Democrats also support a White House initiative that would pump $56 billion into the 2015 budgets, to be split between defense and non-defense.

“The sequester remains in effect to a large extent and we pay a heavy price in terms of defense and non-defense,” Levin said. “That is why the administration put in this $56 billion pool of money, almost evenly divided between defense and non-defense, provided it is paid for. They are going to give us their proposed pay-fors in the next few weeks, as I understand.”

Two Senate Democrats from Virginia, which has a large military and defense industrial presence, went further. 

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said he wished Hagel had waited until February 2015 for the recommendations of a Pentagon commission appointed to look at military pay and benefits. 

“I’m worried that our military and veterans are being asked to have commissaries and benefits to take a hit now when — to my mind, we still ought to be looking at a broader-based grand bargain of retirement reform and tax reform,” he said. 

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he is keeping an open mind but will be examining the Navy’s aircraft carrier operation budget. Hagel said if sequestration is not reversed by 2016, a carrier might have to be cut. 

“I am particularly focused on the carriers as a Virginia guy. I think carriers are our greatest and most visible force projection. There is a statutory requirement for 11 carriers,” he said.

Graham said the Obama administration needed to deal with entitlement and tax reform to undo sequestration. 

“If that is not possible, I would do everything I can to increase defense spending to keep an Army, Navy and Air Force that are capable of fighting the fights that are surely going to occur in the 21st century,” he said.