Rift opens between military brass, Republican lawmakers on defense cuts

A rift is opening between military leaders and Republicans over the size of the defense budget.

Republicans in Congress have hammered President Obama for a planned $487 billion cut to the Pentagon over the next decade and accused him of basing his new strategy for the military on the size of those cuts.

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GOP lawmakers have repeatedly pressed Pentagon officials in recent weeks about whether the $487 billion reduction is too big of a risk for the military to take.

But the service chiefs and their deputies have held the line, providing a near-unified front in saying they support the president’s budget plan and his strategy revamp. The budget cuts involve risk, they say, but it’s an acceptable amount.

Military officials upped the ante this week, as the chiefs of the Navy, Marines and Air Force chose for the first time in years not to submit an unfunded priority list to Congress, known as the services’ “wish lists.” The Army has not said whether it’s submitting a list.

Republicans cried foul, and one lawmaker accused the Obama administration of injecting politics into the decision.

“I don’t think anybody is buying the line that the services don’t want to come in and tell people what they need,” Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) told The Hill. “I’ve never known a situation where the services say, ‘We don’t want to come in and let you know the needs we have.’ ”

The decision not to send the unfunded lists follows a public dust-up between House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and the Pentagon two weeks ago, when Ryan accused military leaders of not giving “their true advice” on the budget.

Pentagon officials say the unfunded priorities lists aren’t being sent because the services helped craft the new military strategy, and they support it.

“The new strategic guidance required some tough choices, but I believe the choices are appropriate to the context in which they were made,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said Thursday at a Harvard Kennedy School of Government forum. “One of the toughest choices of all had to do with how to manage a smaller budget.”

But Republicans in Congress say the absence of the wish lists makes it harder for them to do the job of conducting oversight of the Pentagon budget.

House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said that even if the military is going along with the president’s budget, he isn’t inclined to accept the Obama administration’s level of cuts.

“The chiefs are telling us that as long as they have to assume the risk inherent in the president’s new strategy, they have all they need,” McKeon said. “My job, however is to minimize that risk and ensure that our military has the resources to keep America safe.”

This year’s Pentagon budget proposal is the first that accounts for a $487 billion reduction in defense spending over the next decade, which is a result of the August debt-limit deal reached by Congress and the White House.

Republicans, Democrats and the Pentagon do agree that sequestration — an additional $500 billion automatic cut to defense spending that’s set to hit in January 2013 — should not occur. While everyone has said sequestration is bad for the military, Congress is still deadlocked on finding alternate deficit reduction to reverse it.

But McKeon and other GOP defense hawks in Congress who oppose sequestration are also taking issue with the initial cuts that were agreed to in the August debt deal.

The House Republican budget authored by Ryan revokes a portion of the $487 billion cuts in the Budget Control Act, while making deeper cuts than the president in non-defense discretionary spending. The Ryan budget passed the House last month, but is not likely to move in the Senate.

Ryan caught the ire of the military at a forum hosted by National Journal last month were he accused officials of hiding their views. 

“We don’t think the generals are giving us their true advice,” Ryan said. “We don't think the generals believe their budget is really the right budget.”

Dempsey took issue with the remarks and issued a rare public rebuke of a lawmaker. 

“There’s a difference between having someone say they don’t believe what you said versus … calling us collectively liars,” Dempsey told reporters during a trip through Latin America. “My response is: I stand by my testimony. This was very much a strategy-driven process to which we mapped the budget.”

Ryan apologized to Dempsey for his comments and said that he “misspoke,” but he also stood by his criticism of Obama’s defense budget.

“My issue is I think that the president's budget on the Pentagon is a budget-driven strategy, not a strategy-driven budget,” Ryan said on ABC’s “This Week.” “He announced the number of the cuts he wanted for the Pentagon, and then he began the strategy review to conform to that number.

“We think there are savings to be gotten there, but I think the president's hollowing it out,” Ryan said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) backed up Ryan, and said there was “dissent within the Pentagon” when asked about Ryan's comments.

“I think we have to take the generals' word as they give it to us,” McConnell said on CNN’s “State of the Union" earlier this month. “There has clearly been dissent within the Pentagon about the administration's recommendations for steep defense cuts. I know there's been a big debate within the Pentagon. We hear about it. We're aware of it.”

McKeon is using Ryan’s budget, not the president’s, to set defense spending for his 2013 Defense authorization bill. That would put his budget above the caps in the Budget Control Act and likely lead to a bigger budget than the Senate’s version of the bill.

In a speech at the Reagan Presidential Library last month, McKeon said he wants to roll back the president’s cuts, something that is plausible only if Republicans sweep the 2012 election.

“Taxpayers said, ‘cut the fat out of defense.’ We did that,” McKeon said. “We’re past cutting the fat and past the muscle — now we’re cutting into the bone.”


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