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Top Democrat opposes defense industry funds in next coronavirus relief bill

Top Democrat opposes defense industry funds in next coronavirus relief bill
© Greg Nash

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Wednesday he would not support funding to boost the defense industry in further coronavirus stimulus packages.

The third coronavirus relief bill, known as the CARES Act, allowed the Pentagon to reimburse defense contractors for delays caused by the pandemic, and defense officials have said they expect to request “billions” of dollars in the next bill to pay for that authority.

Armed Services Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithNearly 5,000 National Guard troops to stay in DC over concerns of potential violence in March Langevin hopeful new Armed Services panel will shine new spotlight on cybersecurity Overnight Defense: Pentagon, Congress appoint panel members to rename Confederate bases | Military approves 20 more coronavirus vaccination teams MORE (D-Wash.), though, said he thinks the Pentagon can reimburse contractors with existing funding.

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“I don't think there's a need to send the Pentagon more money to do it,” Smith told reporters on a teleconference Wednesday.

“There are plenty of places within the Pentagon, particularly in light of the slowdown, in light of the fact that there is going to be a record amount of unexecuted money within [the Department of Defense (DOD)] because of how everything is slowing down. Well, take some of that unexecuted money and use that to pay it forward,” he added. “I'm not saying that I'm not convinced that there aren't places within the broad Defense Department obligations where more money needs to be spent. What I'm saying is I have yet to be convinced that that money cannot be found within the areas of DOD where less money is now being spent.”

In particular, Smith highlighted funding the Pentagon previously redirected to build President TrumpDonald TrumpRomney: 'Pretty sure' Trump would win 2024 GOP nomination if he ran for president Pence huddles with senior members of Republican Study Committee Trump says 'no doubt' Tiger Woods will be back after accident MORE’s border wall that has yet to be spent, an amount he said totals about $2 billion.

Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, told reporters last week the department is expecting a three-month delay across major weapons programs due to the coronavirus crisis.

She said she expected the Pentagon to request “billions and billions” to reimburse contractors, but that the exact amount was still being worked out with the White House Office of Management and Budget.

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Meanwhile, some defense hawks have also proposed an infusion of spending on weapons to counter China. For example, a bill from Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonOn The Money: Schumer urges Democrats to stick together on .9T bill | Collins rules out GOP support for Biden relief plan | Powell fights inflation fears Biden health nominee faces first Senate test Trump to attend private RNC donor retreat MORE (R-Ark.) would provide $11 billion to mitigate effects of the pandemic on procurement programs, $3.3 billion to mitigate effects on the defense industrial base and $9.2 billion to buy more equipment, including a Virginia-class submarine, F-35 fighters jets and a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system.

“I don't see a need right now, of all the needs that we face in this country, to spend more money on basic DOD to go buy more planes or ships or boats or anything like that,” Smith said Wednesday. “What we do need to spend money on in the supplemental is what's necessary to help us deal with the virus.”

Saying he thinks the Pentagon “can play a role” in the public health response, Smith added he would support funding to more aggressively use the Defense Production Act to buy additional personal protective equipment and testing supplies.

The CARES Act provided the Pentagon $10.5 billion for the Defense Production Act, defense health programs, military deployments helping with the crisis and other areas.

Asked about other funding the Pentagon might need to deal with fallout from the pandemic, such as for military families, Smith reiterated that he thinks the Pentagon’s existing budget is big enough.

“Without question, with the pandemic, with the needs of the national security and DOD, we're gonna have to spend a lot of money on this. Good news, we have a lot of money,” he said, citing this year’s defense budget of $738 billion plus previous emergency funding for hurricane recovery. “I'm not saying that there aren’t needs within the Department of Defense to spend money. There absolutely are. I'm saying that the Department of Defense has a lot of money, and they ought to spend that money to meet those needs.”