Key Republican pushes $17B defense funding bump for 'core military needs'

Key Republican pushes $17B defense funding bump for 'core military needs'
© Greg Nash

The top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday would not confirm whether he would vote for the annual defense bill if his push to increase the defense budget by $17 billion is not accepted.

Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryHouse and Senate head for showdown on must-pass defense bill House approves defense bill after adding liberal sweeteners Overnight Defense: Dems confident defense bill will pass despite party infighting | GOP chairman's bill would review US, Saudi ties | Senators briefed on sexual assault allegation against top general MORE (R-Texas) unveiled an amendment early Tuesday that would increase the top-line figure in the House version of the bill to $750 billion but said he and his Republican colleagues have yet to “evaluate the good the bad and the ugly” in the bill.

“I think without question all Republican members on the committee want to vote yes on this bill,” Thornberry told reporters at a breakfast roundtable in Washington. “The question of whether we do is going to depend on that basic thing, does this continue to move us forward or does this take us backwards?”

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The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) as it currently stands would authorize a defense budget of $733 billion for fiscal 2020, which covers the Defense Department and the Department of Energy’s nuclear programs.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, proposed a $750 billion budget, which Republicans argue is the minimum needed to ensure U.S. military readiness, citing defense officials' testimony on the need for 3 to 5 percent year-over-year budget growth.

Thornberry argued that his amendment for the 3 percent increase “enables us to do very specific concrete things that are important to national security,” including restoring personnel accounts, money for disaster funding, and restoring funding requests for hypersonic technology.

“The chairman’s mark cut the request for the personnel accounts by about $1.2 billion, and so what I am doing with this amendment is to restore the funds to the level requested,” he said. “I stayed away from the most controversial stuff. There’s no wall money and other lightning rods because I wanted it to be core military capability.”

The amendment is “directed to core military needs," Thornberry added.

But the amendment does include the controversial funding proposal to allocate $3.6 billion to backfill military construction funding President TrumpDonald John TrumpAmash responds to 'Send her back' chants at Trump rally: 'This is how history's worst episodes begin' McConnell: Trump 'on to something' with attacks on Dem congresswomen Trump blasts 'corrupt' Puerto Rico's leaders amid political crisis MORE plans to take to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Democrats did not include that amount in the NDAA because they consider it the administration’s backdoor way for Congress to approve wall funding.

Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithThe House Democrats who voted to kill impeachment effort Overnight Defense: Esper officially nominated for Defense secretary | Pentagon silent on Turkey getting Russian missile system | House, Senate headed for clash over defense bill House and Senate head for showdown on must-pass defense bill MORE (D-Wash.) on Monday defended the $733 billion amount in the bill, saying that’s what the Pentagon was planning for until shortly before the administration submitted its budget request.

Thornberry, however, said that Smith’s assertion is “certainly not my understanding,” and that the lower amount was merely in press reports.

He said the issue of the administration budget request was discussed in December in an Oval Office meeting with himself, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeTrump's pick to lead Pentagon glides through confirmation hearing Trump says US will not sell Turkey F-35s after Russian missile defense system purchase Warren spars with Trump's top Defense nominee over ethics MORE (R-Okla.), Vice President Pence, former White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, then-Office of Management and Budget Director Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyTrump's new labor chief alarms Democrats, unions The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - Trump attack on progressive Dems draws sharp rebuke Acosta out as Trump Labor secretary MORE, national security adviser John BoltonJohn Robert BoltonTrump may intervene in Pentagon cloud-computing contract: report Trump agrees to let Rand Paul meet with Iran in bid to reduce tensions: report Will Iran 'break out' for a nuclear weapon, and what can Trump do? MORE and former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisThe Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment Trump's pick to lead Pentagon glides through confirmation hearing Overnight Defense: Highlights from Defense pick's confirmation hearing | Esper spars with Warren over ethics | Sidesteps questions on Mattis vs. Trump | Trump says he won't sell F-35s to Turkey MORE.

The Washington Post reported at the time that the Dec. 4 meeting was held in an effort to sway Trump to back off on a $700 billion defense budget as part of an order for all federal government departments to cut their planned budgets by 5 percent. The Pentagon had reportedly previously planned a $733 billion budget before such cuts.

“I think a number of us made the case ... that you’ve got to have 3 to 5 percent real growth just to not fall further behind with the Russians and the Chinese and to build our readiness,” Thornberry said of the meeting.

“At the end of the day the president’s decision was, ‘OK, we’ll do 3 percent real growth.’ He likes round numbers so that’s how [$750 billion] got there, it’s within a fraction of being 3 percent real growth. That was the decision, that’s what everybody moved out on, that was the administration request, that is the amount the Senate is marking to.”

The House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday will markup the NDAA. Thornberry said he’ll wait to see what amendments are adopted before he decides to vote on the bill.

“We’ve got amendments to come and go, it may get better it may get worse, we’ll see,” he said.