‘Hardball’ Pentagon memo creates firestorm

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Republicans are livid after a leaked Pentagon memo revealed the department’s plan to “play hardball” against the House’s proposed defense funding method.

“For this administration, it’s always politics first, even at the Pentagon,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said in a written statement Tuesday. “This memo details with relish a plan to use a presidential veto of a defense bill as a ‘weapon.’”

{mosads}The Pentagon says the memo shouldn’t come as a surprise since it has been vocal about its opposition to the defense bills in question. But Republicans say the memo is evidence the Obama administration is playing politics with national security in order to get an equal increase in nondefense spending.

Experts say the tone of the memo, as well as the fact that it was leaked, are shocking, even if its existence is not.

“Even if they do a memo like this every year, pieces of this are surprising,” said Justin Johnson, defense budget expert at The Heritage Foundation. “At least in their sort of aggressive tone.”

It’s unclear, though, whether that aggressive tone will mean lasting damage between the Pentagon and Republican lawmakers.

“It certainly doesn’t help,” Johnson said. “There’s already been tension between Republicans in Congress and the Pentagon. At this point, it certainly probably makes it worse for the time being, and it certainly could increase odds that Congress sends a bill over that gets vetoed. But in terms of personal relationships, there’s only four months left in this administration.”

At issue is how the House defense policy and spending bills would use a war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account to get around budget caps.

A portion of the war fund — $18 billion more than the administration requested — would be used for base budget items. That would leave the OCO account dry by April and force the next president to request supplemental funding.

Meanwhile, the Senate versions of the policy and spending bills stick to the president’s budget request and last year’s Bipartisan Budget Act.

The Obama administration has threatened to veto the House bills, in part because of the OCO issue.

The memo, which was written by Pentagon comptroller Mike McCord and assistant secretary of Defense for legislative affairs Stephen Hedger, called the veto threat the Pentagon’s “primary weapon.”

On Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said the memo shouldn’t be surprising.

“It should certainly come as no surprise to anybody that there were some things moving through Congress this year that we were not happy about and that there were certainly plans to make sure we communicated that in an effective way,” he said.

A senior defense official, speaking on background, added that, “It’s our responsibility to be engaged in these issues.”

The memo, first reported by Politico, goes on to detail the stances of key members of Congress and the various meetings, fact sheets and speeches Pentagon leaders should give to oppose the bills.

For example, the memo advocates engaging with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), chairmen of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Appropriations defense subcommittee, respectively, since the Senate bills did not include the OCO tactic.

On Tuesday afternoon, McCain slammed the memo.

“This administration knows no depths they won’t plummet politicizing defense,” he said.

On Ryan, the memo says he is an “active participant in the gimmick” since he directed the House Armed Services Committee and House Appropriations defense subcommittee to employ the OCO tactic.

In his statement, Ryan called the memo “shameless.”

“It’s shameless, and it threatens more than five decades of bipartisan cooperation to enact a national defense bill for our troops,” he said. “The men and women who defend our country deserve better.”

The memo also assesses that Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, “may be less enthused” about the House funding tactic, but went along with it at Ryan’s direction.

“Capitalizing on his discomfort could help prevent the gimmick from surviving,” the memo says of Frelinghuysen.

Frelinghuysen disputed that.

“There is no daylight between the Speaker, Chairman Thornberry or myself in meeting the needs of our nation’s defense and military, the political hacks of the Obama administration notwithstanding,” he said in a statement to The Hill.

The memo also describes House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) as “still smarting” from last year’s veto of the defense policy bill.

In his own statement, Thornberry said the memo is evidence of the Obama administration playing political games.

“It is unfortunate and rather sad that some in the Obama administration spend so much time and effort playing political games, as evidenced by this memo,” he said.  “In a department charged with the security of our nation, the American people and our troops deserve better.”

A slew of other Republican Armed Services members not named in the memo also blasted it.

“While the administration expends its efforts on making our national security a partisan issue, the safety and resources of our men and women in uniform hang in the balance,” Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) said in a statement.

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) called the memo depressing.

“For the Pentagon to so blatantly follow the White House’s politics first approach is a depressing commentary on this administration’s utter disregard for our national security needs,” he said in a statement.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) said he was disappointed as a veteran.

“As the son of a veteran, the father of four sons who have served in the military, and a veteran myself, I am deeply disappointed that our commander in chief would threaten to use a veto of the National Defense Authorization Act as a ‘weapon’ against Speaker Paul Ryan and congressional Republicans,” he said in a statement.

Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) said the memo is part of the administration’s history of politicizing defense issues.

“The Obama administration has a track record of using our military men and women as pawns in their political game, but this memo makes clear they have no shame in doing so,” he said in a statement. “There is no greater responsibility of the Congress than to provide for the common defense, and we cannot allow these kind of petty politics to stand in our way.”

Kristina Wong contributed to this story.



Tags Joe Wilson John McCain Paul Ryan Pentagon Rodney Frelinghuysen Thad Cochran

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