Defense hawks gird for budget brawl

Defense hawks gird for budget brawl
© Getty

Defense hawks are hunkering down for a fight to get all $640 billion they say is necessary to rebuild the military after President Trump’s budget proposal fell short of their expectations.

Budget experts predict a battle in the coming months between the administration, appropriators, party leadership and congressional committees that may fall short of delivering even the $603 billion Trump has proposed.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP Ex-McSally aide pleads guilty to stealing over 0K in campaign funds DOJ: Arizona recount could violate civil rights laws MORE (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services committees, have the power to push a $640 billion defense policy bill regardless of how the budget shakes out.


“It’s going to be a heavy lift to even get close to Trump’s proposal,” said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “With that said, the authorizers can go off and mark to something that’s completely different.”

Trump’s $603 billion base defense budget leaves out much of what was on defense hawks’ wish lists, as well as items Trump himself promised throughout his 2016 White House campaign.

The budget includes no additional ships from what was planned under former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden expected to tap Rahm Emanuel for Japan ambassador Baltimore businessman enters Maryland governor race Press: Let us now praise Liz Cheney MORE, though officials have said the administration supports adding another littoral combat ship and has promised to issue a correction to the budget.

The budget would also add no new soldiers and buy eight fewer aircraft than Obama had planned.

The Pentagon has said this budget proposal is about fixing the readiness of the force it currently has and that Congress can expect the buildup to start in fiscal year 2019. But defense hawks say that’s an unnecessary and potentially harmful delay.

Both Thornberry and McCain insisted this week they do not yet know whether their respective versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would eschew Trump’s budget and follow their $640 billion proposal, saying the budget process needed to progress further before making a decision.

But both were highly critical of Trump’s proposal.

In front of a crowd at the Brookings Institution on Monday, Thornberry dismissed the budget as “the Obama approach with a little bit more.”

McCain, meanwhile, blasted the budget as “inadequate to the challenges we face, illegal under current law and part of an overall budget proposal that is dead on arrival in Congress.”

In a hearing Thursday specifically on the Army’s request, McCain added that the budget “ignores what Army leaders have testified to this committee, which is that inadequate end-strength is forcing the Army to consume readiness as fast as it produces it.”

By contrast, appropriators have taken a somewhat softer tone on the budget.

Rep. Kay GrangerNorvell (Kay) Kay GrangerRepublican, Democratic lawmakers urge fully funding US assistance to Israel The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - All US adults can get vaccine; decision Friday on J&J vax Biden to hold second meeting with bipartisan lawmakers on infrastructure MORE (R-Texas), chairwoman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, said earlier this month that while she supports the $640 billion proposal in theory, she doesn’t think it’s achievable “unless something drops from heaven.” And after Trump's budget was released, she called it "a start."

“As the defense appropriations chairwoman, it’s my job to make sure our leaders in uniform have the resources they need to protect the nation,” she said in a statement. “To that end, we will look closely at the defense budget to make sure our priorities are where they should be.”

Likewise, Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranBottom line Bottom line Alabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future MORE (R-Miss.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and its defense subcommittee, said Trump’s budget “is an opportunity for Congress” and promised that his panel would work on "appropriations bills that responsibly provide for our national security and other priorities.”

Tom Spoehr, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, said he anticipates McCain and Thornberry to put up a fight.

“They really have signaled that they are really unhappy with [$603 billion], that they’re going to push,” he said. “They don’t want to disrupt the entire Congress. They don’t want to tip over the apple cart. But also the mere fact that they put out their numbers before the White House is an indicator that they feel really strongly about it.”

Conversations he’s had with House and Senate Armed Services committee staffers support that they haven’t yet settled on a $640 billion defense bill, he said, adding they wanted to talk with appropriators “before they staked out some ground.”

He predicted that Congress would fall somewhere in the middle of $640 billion and $603 billion, which would provide enough money for some of the procurement defense hawks want.

Spoehr argued that while it’s theoretically possible for McCain and Thornberry to pursue a $640 billion NDAA regardless of what budget Congress reaches, it would be be a bad idea.

“There’s continued uncertainty then about where defense is going to go,” he said. “You want to have some measure of consensus, some neighborhood, or no one knows what to believe, and so all of Congress kind of looks foolish at that point.”

Harrison, of CSIS, likewise said discrepancies between the defense spending and policy bills would hurt the Armed Services committee.

“It undermines some of the authority of the authorizers when they authorize things that don’t ultimately get appropriated,” he said. “You can’t spend an authorization.”

He also predicted continued tension between the Armed Services committees and appropriators in the months to come. But ultimately, he said, it will be up the party leadership to negotiate a budget deal to get anything more than the $549 billion annual defense spending cap set by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

He’s predicting a budget deal that’s about $40 to $45 billion above the budget cap – which would fall below Trump's proposal.

“It’s not the $54 billion Trump is requesting and it’s only half of the way to the McCain-Thornberry proposal, but $40 billion above the caps instead of $54 [billion] in the grand scheme of things” isn’t that big a difference, he said.

“You might have to reprioritize, maybe delay a few weapons systems. But Congress is always good at sweeping up money that hasn’t been spent. You know, shake couch cushions and a few dollars fall out.”