Senate panel proposes $26 billion less than Gates says is needed

For the Pentagon, Senate appropriators’ 2011 defense spending measure is a mixed bag.

The long-awaited bill grants defense officials’ wishes by zeroing funds for a fighter engine they do not want, but it misses their funding target by $26 billion.

Senate appropriators finally unveiled their 2011 Pentagon appropriations bill late Friday, proposing to give the Defense Department $514 billion in its base budget.

That level likely will not please Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has said the Pentagon needs at least $540 billion for its 2011 base budget. The Obama administration last year sought $548 billion in Pentagon funding. Gates has told several congressional panels DoD “can get by with” $8 billion less than it initially sought.

Congress has yet to pass a full defense spending measure for 2011. The House has passed a yearlong CR that contains a $526 billion defense bill, $14 billion under what defense leaders say is sufficient.

A large chunk of the Senate appropriators’ cuts were “taken mainly in savings identified due to revised economic assumptions and a freeze in civilian pay,” according to a Senate Appropriations Committee summary of the bill.

The summary noted despite being $26 billion lower than the Pentagon desires, it fully funds military healthcare and a pay raise for U.S. troops.

While the Senate and Pentagon are $26 billion apart, they are in agreement about an alternate engine program for the F-35 fighter. In a dramatic floor vote last month, the House slashed $450 million for the engine program during consideration of its full-year CR.

The Pentagon has tried for several years to kill the alternative engine program, but Congress has repeatedly added funding to defense appropriations bills to keep it alive.

Like the House’s defense measure, the Senate appropriators included $157.8 billion to pay for the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.

The Senate summary also highlights several areas where senators disagree with the House defense measure under a section titled “irresponsible cuts,” including nuclear weapons modernization and economic assistance for Iraq and Afghanistan.

On the former, the Senate summary states the House’s proposal to cut $312 million from the Pentagon spending plan “would have put at risk the United States’ ability to begin much needed investments in rebuilding our aging nuclear weapons infrastructure and meet the highest priority goals laid out in the Nuclear Posture Review.”

On the latter, the Senate appropriators say a House-passed 28 percent cut to the administration’s “Economic Support Fund” request would “cripple efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and transition responsibility for U.S. operations in Iraq from the military to civilians.”