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 ThornberryGOP Foreign Affairs leaders join pushback against potential troop drawdown in Africa White House threatens veto of House Iran bills Broad, bipartisan rebuke for proposal to pull troops from Africa 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 TrumpCNN's Don Lemon explains handling of segment after Trump criticism NPR reporter after Pompeo clash: Journalists don't interview government officials to score 'political points' Lawyer says Parnas can't attend Senate trial due to ankle bracelet 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 SmithGOP Foreign Affairs leaders join pushback against potential troop drawdown in Africa Broad, bipartisan rebuke for proposal to pull troops from Africa Lawmakers push back at Pentagon's possible Africa drawdown 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 InhofeGOP Foreign Affairs leaders join pushback against potential troop drawdown in Africa Democrats say Trump ceded right to block Bolton when he attacked him Broad, bipartisan rebuke for proposal to pull troops from Africa 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 MulvaneySenate Republicans to meet Tuesday afternoon on witness question Graham: There will be 51 GOP votes to call Bidens, whistleblower John Kelly: 'I believe John Bolton' MORE, national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonTrump allies throw jabs at Bolton over book's claims GOP confident of win on witnesses Giuliani calls Bolton a 'backstabber' over Ukraine allegations MORE and former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisLawmakers push back at Pentagon's possible Africa drawdown Overnight Defense: Book says Trump called military leaders 'dopes and babies' | House reinvites Pompeo for Iran hearing | Dems urge Esper to reject border wall funding request Trump called top military brass 'a bunch of dopes and babies' in 2017: book 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.