The Year Ahead: Trump throws uncertainty into Pentagon budget

President TrumpDonald John TrumpNASA exec leading moon mission quits weeks after appointment The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' MORE is sowing confusion over the Department of Defense (DOD) budget for next year.

Trump’s most recent directive reportedly ordered Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisShanahan orders new restrictions on sharing of military operations with Congress: report Pentagon reporters left in dark as Iran tensions escalate Trump officials slow-walk president's order to cut off Central American aid: report MORE to submit a $750 billion budget proposal for fiscal 2020. It is only the latest in a series of conflicting signals about the top-line numbers, injecting uncertainty into the process and sending Republican lawmakers and military officials scrambling.

“Given how much President Trump has flip-flopped on the defense budget issue just in the past few weeks, this is far from settled,” cautioned Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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The president first startled defense hawks in October when he announced that he would require all federal agencies to cut 5 percent from their spending bills for fiscal 2020. 

He said the Defense Department would be exempt from such reductions, but that he still wanted a $700 billion Pentagon budget — a major drop from the $733 billion military planners had been expecting.

But at a meeting last week with the president, Mattis and the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services committees, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), respectively, reportedly secured the new $750 billion figure, a stark about-face for Trump.

Thornberry and Inhofe met with Trump at the White House in an attempt to sway the commander in chief against making the dramatic cuts. In a tweet just a day before, Trump appeared to call the Pentagon’s current budget of $716 billion "crazy."

Budget experts are skeptical that the issue is resolved and that Trump has settled on a top-line number.

“It’s just all over the map and I think what that indicates is that there’s no firm position yet in the White House on what the level of funding is going to be,” Harrison told The Hill.

“We’re in uncharted territory here because I cannot recall a time when at this point in the budget development process an administration was having a public debate about the DOD top line with this range of numbers being thrown around.”

The new $750 billion figure — $17 billion more than top military officials have been pushing for — has not been announced officially yet.

Asked about the possible new top line on Tuesday, Inhofe would not confirm the number to reporters.

“I’m not in a position to say that because enough's been leaked out, and you can draw your own conclusions,” Inhofe said.

Asked about the number he would like to see, Inhofe joked, “I’m pushing towards $780 [billion]. I just now thought of it. It’s a good high number.”

Inhofe has said that he’d ideally want a 3 to 5 percent increase over this year, as technically $733 billion is not a bump year-over-year due to inflation.

Inhofe also acknowledged the uncertainty over the numbers.

“I don’t know where it’s going to go, I really don’t,” he added.

Senate Armed Services ranking member Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedSenate panel advances Trump's Space Force Senate panel rejects Trump plan to skirt budget caps, advances defense bill that backfills wall money Overnight Defense: Iran worries dominate foreign policy talk | Pentagon reportedly to send WH plans for 10K troops in Mideast | Democrats warn Trump may push through Saudi arms sale | Lawmakers blast new Pentagon policy on sharing info MORE (D-R.I.), meanwhile, was highly skeptical the $750 billion would remain the final Pentagon request.

“No absolutely not,” Reed said when asked on the likelihood of it. “The number has bounced all over, the president has talked about $716 [billion], $733 [billion], $750 [billion]."

The confusion over where the president stands also comes at an already delicate time in budget negotiations. Reed said the real issue would not be the top line, but the ability to lift budget caps to allow a respectable defense budget.

Under the Budget Control Act, Congress is restricted from funding defense spending above a $576 billion baseline. To get to any of the figures under discussion, party leadership will first have to agree to a deal to raise budget caps as the last deal expires. The law setting the caps is in place through 2021.

Democrats in the past have agreed to raise defense spending if there is also an increase in nondefense spending, which Reed said must be decided on before a final top line.

“I think frankly, they’re putting the cart before the horse. The caps relief should come first and then we can work to maximize the budget. I think our focus, our attention is going to be on sequester relief,” Reed said.

“Until we get that kind of clarity, these numbers for one department are not particularly relevant.”

By all indications, the Pentagon is moving forward with a $733 billion proposal, a number based on what it needs to carry out the National Defense Strategy.

Asked whether the department had received direction from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to work around the new $750 billion figure, officials declined to answer.

“The department is committed to ensuring our military remains the most lethal force in the world. And that we are working with OMB to determine the department’s top-line number,” Pentagon spokesman Chris Sherwood told The Hill.

Harrison said he doesn’t have a lot of confidence that $750 billion will be the Pentagon’s final request.

“It’s one thing for the president to say it in a meeting with people, it’s another thing for the president to tell the budget director to direct DOD to the higher number, and if that hasn’t happened yet, then this is not a firm decision,” Harrison said.

The president's actions have rattled defense hawks, who hope they can sway Trump to stick with a higher number. They have been publicly pushing to keep the top line in the president’s mind.

A group of 70 House lawmakers last week sent a letter to Trump warning of “disastrous consequences” for the military if he does not keep the Pentagon budget at $733 billion.

Lawmakers have also argued that after two years of increases, a cut to the defense budget would reverse progress made to address a so-called readiness crisis.

But Democrats, who will control the House starting in January, have made it known they want a trimmer defense figure. The presumptive incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Iran worries dominate foreign policy talk | Pentagon reportedly to send WH plans for 10K troops in Mideast | Democrats warn Trump may push through Saudi arms sale | Lawmakers blast new Pentagon policy on sharing info Shanahan orders new restrictions on sharing of military operations with Congress: report Trump officials say US efforts to deter Iran have worked MORE (D-Wash.), has called this year’s $716 billion figure “too high” and has said finding cuts would be a priority for him as chairman.

Democrats and Republicans have regularly clashed over the military budget. But Republicans are now dealing with a wild card in their own president.

“Clearly the Defense Department and Republicans in Congress are pushing hard for a higher number,” Harrison said.

"There’s a lot of pressure within parts of the administration and within the president’s own party for a higher defense top-line number."