Defense Secretary James Mattis refused to bite Tuesday at repeated attempts by senators to get him to criticize the Trump administration’s budget request.
“I'm here to defend the budget as it stands because I can defend every priority there,” Mattis said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday. “I have to represent the president's budget since he's having to deal with a wider portfolio than just defense.”
President Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget request has been roundly criticized on Capitol Hill, with many calling it dead on arrival.
Defense hawks are upset the administration requested a $603 billion base defense budget, not the $640 billion they have advocated for. The $603 billion figure is $54 billion above caps set by the Budget Control Act.
Democrats and some Republicans have also criticized the overall budget for slashing domestic spending to pay for the bump in defense spending, with concern particularly focused on cuts to the State Department and foreign aid.
On Tuesday, members of the Armed Services Committee repeatedly pressed Mattis on all of those concerns.
Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainWhoopi Goldberg signs four-year deal with ABC to stay on 'The View' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Meghan McCain: Country has not 'healed' from Trump under Biden MORE (R-Ariz.) asked Mattis whether he’s satisfied with what amounts to a 3 percent increase over what was planned by former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama says US 'desperately needs' Biden legislation ahead of key votes Obamas to break ground Tuesday on presidential center in Chicago A simple fix can bring revolutionary change to health spending MORE and whether the military services’ unfunded priorities, which total more than $30 billion, are needed.
Mattis said he thinks Trump’s budget is “appropriate” but that he would take more money if Congress were to give it to him.
“At this point I think that the president's budget is allocated appropriately to the priorities,” Mattis said. “I'd be happy to see more money if the Congress was to allocate additional funds and along the lines of the unfunded priority list.”
McCain was not satisfied.
“I appreciate your willingness to cooperate, but a lot of times, we depend on your recommendations in order to — in shaping our authorization and appropriation,” he said.
McCain also later blasted the Trump budget for ignoring the Budget Control Act (BCA) but not requesting as much as needed.
“If we're going to bust the BCA, then why don't we bust it to what we really need?" he said.
Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedTop Republican: General told senators he opposed Afghanistan withdrawal We have a plan that prioritizes Afghanistan's women — we're just not using it This week: Democrats kick off chaotic fall with Biden's agenda at stake MORE (D-R.I.), the ranking member of the committee, pressed Mattis on the fact that the budget would violate the BCA.
Mattis agreed with Reed’s interpretation that bumping defense spending without repealing the BCA would violate the law and result in across the board cuts to defense spending that would negate the increase.
Mattis also agreed when Reed said those across the board cuts would be “more disruptive than anything I can conceive because there would be no prioritization.”
Asked whether Trump is aware of that, Mattis said Trump is “keenly aware of the situation.”
Further asked what Trump’s position on it is, Mattis demurred.
“I'd prefer to speak to mine, sir, because I can speak most authoritatively there,” Mattis said. “Bottom line is, the administration believes that the Congress has to repeal the Budget Control Act and the sequestration that follows.”
Pressed again on why Trump’s budget is silent on the BCA, Mattis said it’s Congress’s job to repeal it.
“Sen. Reed, we're part of the executive branch, and Article I of the Constitution gives you that authority to deal with that very situation,” he said.
Mattis was also repeatedly asked whether he stands by a 2013 quote: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”
Mattis said he stands by the quote.
“It’s probably a rather simplistic way to point out that we have to engage with whole of government, and yes sir, I still stand by the theory,” he told Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump-backed challenger to Cheney decried him as 'racist,' 'xenophobic' in 2016: report State Department spokesperson tests positive for COVID-19 The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Lawmakers fret over wild week of deadlines MORE (R-S.C.). “I think America has two fundamental powers: the power of inspiration and the power of intimidation. You have to work together, and State Department represents inspiration overseas.”
But when asked by Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonTechnology is easy but politics is hard for NASA's Lunar Human Landing System Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — Climate change turning US into coffee country Elon Musk mocks Biden for ignoring his company's historic space flight MORE (D-Fla.) whether Trump’s budget takes away options to avoid a war by cutting funding to the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, Mattis demurred.
“I can’t tell you what is being cut and what is being retained. I’d have to direct you to Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson,” he said. “I’m just not confident to answer.”
Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillRepublicans may regret restricting reproductive rights Sunday shows preview: States deal with fallout of Ida; Texas abortion law takes effect Giuliani to stump for Greitens in Missouri MORE (D-Mo.) pressed Mattis on Trump’s claims that the budget represents a historic military buildup when it would not, for example, add any soldiers to the Army.
“Does he not know that this isn't a historic request?" McCaskill asked. “I’m worried there’s a misreprentation going on.”
Mattis responded by touting the supplemental the administration requested for fiscal 2017 and said the Pentagon continues to work on a defense strategy that will guide future increases.
“We’re trying to put together a coherent program on the run, while we’re engaged overseas, while we have numerous crises unfolding, while we’re still getting approved through the Senate, nominated to the Senate and get the consent of the Senate to get them in, there’s a fair number of things going on at one time,” he said.
“I’ve got to come to you with a coherent plan that I can confidently say that the money you throw into this is going to be spent wisely.”