Five fights loom over Pentagon budget

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Thursday the first details of how the Pentagon will cut $487 billion over the next decade, which were quickly attacked by Republican defense hawks.

Here are biggest fights that are on tap in the coming months over the new budget:

Troop reductions
Between reductions in ground forces in the Army and Marines, the Pentagon is going to cut 100,000 troops in the next five years from the post-9/11 high point. The Army will be reduced to 490,000 troops — 80,000 fewer — and the Marines will have 182,000, down from 202,000.

ADVERTISEMENT
This has already drawn howls from Republicans, who will use the reduction as a prime example that the military is in danger of becoming a hollowed-out force under the new budget reality.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) warned in a budget fact sheet Thursday that the troop reduction “fails to learn from the past.”

“While high technology and elite forces give America an edge, they cannot substitute for overwhelming ground forces when we are faced with unforeseen battlefields,” McKeon said in a statement.
 
Base closures
Panetta said that the president will ask Congress for a new round of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) to identify bases that are no longer needed.

BRAC was set up as a way to try and take politics out of base closures, and the idea for more will surely generate plenty of protest.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) brought it up as his biggest concern at a breakfast with reporters Thursday, saying that he wants to see bases in Europe closed before domestic bases are shuttered.

The reason base closures are so contentious is that no matter where you close a base, it’s in someone’s district, and that member is going to be upset at the loss of jobs and the economic boost.
 
Military healthcare costs
Military healthcare costs have exploded in the last decade, rising 90 percent since 2001, Panetta said.

Retirees are given generous benefits at a low cost. Those costs are about to rise: Panetta said that TRICARE fees for retirees under the age of 65 will go up, and the Pentagon wants to establish a new enrollment fee for TRICARE-for-Life, a program for retirees above 65.

Panetta said these costs would still remain below the civilian equivalent, but that isn’t going to stop opposition to the benefit increases. There’s long been a political fight over TRICARE benefits, and like the healthcare reform fight, it’s not going away anytime soon, as medical costs continue to rise.
 
Troop pay increases

The Pentagon is proposing a reduction in pay increases in 2015, allowing for the military to prepare for the lower raises. The idea of waiting until 2015, Panetta said, was to let the military prepare for the reductions.

In a post-9/11 Congress, that’s unlikely to go over well, as Congress has already routinely approved pay raises at levels higher than the Pentagon requests.

One congressional source, however, suggested this fight might not flare up just yet, because it doesn’t affect the immediate 2013 budget. That would still give the Pentagon plenty of time to change its mind when the 2015 budget rolls around, the source said, while taking advantage of the savings in the out-year budget now.
 
Sequestration
There is no mention of the potential for $500 billion in cuts through sequestration in the 2013 Pentagon budget, but the issue will hang over the 2013 budget process. Panetta said Thursday that he hopes Congress will realize the sacrifice involved with this round of budget cuts, and that it will lead them to act to change the sequestration cuts.

Panetta, Republicans and Democrats have said that the cuts to defense under sequestration are unacceptable — Levin compared them to a nuclear weapon Thursday. 
The issue is that in order to stop them, Congress must do what the supercommittee failed to: find $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. Democrats insist that new taxes must be included in the deficit reduction, something Republicans have refused to accept.

Levin predicted Thursday that the threat of sequestration is one that will change Republicans’ minds. Expect that debate within a debate to play out repeatedly as the 2013 budget goes through Congress.