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Battle heats up over Pentagon spending plans

The Hill logo The Hill 3/21/2021 Rebecca Kheel
a man standing in front of a plane: Battle heats up over Pentagon spending plans © Getty Images Battle heats up over Pentagon spending plans

Jockeying over defense funding is heating up amid expectations President Biden will request an essentially flat Pentagon budget for next year.

This past week, a group of progressive Democrats sent Biden a letter calling for him to "significantly" slash defense spending.

The letter sparked fierce backlash from Republicans, who view defense cuts as a red line and would like to see the budget increase.

The back-and-forth points to a difficult balancing act the administration and Democrats will face when the budget works its way through a narrowly divided Congress.

Defense budget watchers have for months been anticipating a request from the Biden administration that's little changed from current spending levels, particularly amid other budget pressures such as the trillions of dollars spent on the COVID-19 crisis.

Pentagon officials are reportedly crafting a fiscal 2022 budget between $704 billion and $708 billion that is essentially flat compared with this year's funding.

The spending request is not expected until May, but top generals have already started the annual ritual of appearing before defense committees in Congress to make their cases for more resources.

With the focus of national security increasingly turning to competition with China, the budget request for Indo-Pacific Command (Indo-Pacom) is garnering extra attention.

In a congressionally mandated report earlier this month, Indo-Pacom Commander Adm. Philip Davidson called for about $4.7 billion in fiscal 2022 and about $27 billion through 2027 to fund items such as an Aegis Ashore missile defense system on Guam, upgrades to training ranges and expanded war games.

Davidson told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a hearing this month that he's been "quite encouraged" by the administration's draft budget requests, but acknowledged there's "a long way to go before the budget is finalized."

A flat budget is likely to mean efforts to retire older weapons systems, something Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks telegraphed Friday as she outlined how the United States will need "to demonstrate the will and capability to credibly deter [Chinese] aggression."

"Making room for new capabilities will require difficult choices where the nation's security needs are no longer being met," Hicks said in a speech to the National War College, her first public remarks as deputy Defense secretary. "The department will work closely with Congress to phase out systems and approaches optimized for an earlier era."

Those trade-offs are likely to spark more jostling between Congress and the administration as lawmakers work to protect programs that benefit their constituents. For example, in response to reports the Pentagon may again propose an early retirement of the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier, Virginia lawmakers in both parties blasted the idea.

"As we look to expand the U.S. Navy's presence in response to malign Chinese activity and illegal maritime claims, the last thing we should consider is cuts to our carrier fleet," Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) said in a statement this month. "One cannot place a value on the unparalleled power projection and deterrence provided by our fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and their embarked air wings."

Meanwhile, with the White House and both chambers of Congress controlled by Democrats for the first time in years, progressives are hoping to advance their longstanding goal of cutting the defense budget.

In a Tuesday letter, 50 House Democrats - led by former Progressive Caucus chairs Reps. Barbara Lee (Calif.) and Mark Pocan (Wis.) and Marines veteran Rep. Jake Auchincloss (Mass.) - urged Biden to "go further" than submitting a budget that doesn't increase spending.

"Rather than requesting a flat Pentagon budget, we urge you to seek a significantly reduced Pentagon topline," they wrote.

"Hundreds of billions of dollars now directed to the military would have greater return if invested in diplomacy, humanitarian aid, global public health, sustainability initiatives, and basic research," they added.

With a slim Democratic majority in the House and a 50-50 split in the Senate, Democrats are expected to need Republican votes to pass a defense budget.

Republicans have been urging Biden to boost the defense budget by 3 to 5 percent, the pace of defense spending increases early in the Trump administration, and sent a letter to that effect earlier this month signed by the top Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee.

After Tuesday's letter from progressive lawmakers, Republicans pounced.

In a floor speech, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) cast Biden's upcoming budget as a test of his seriousness in competing with China.

"Unfortunately, reports suggest the Biden administration may plan to freeze defense spending. Of course that means a reduction, after inflation. Dozens of Democrats are pressuring the administration for even steeper cuts," McConnell said.

"If the administration is serious about competing with China, deterring Russia, and preserving American leadership, the most important test will be in the president's budget submission," he said.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), said in a speech this past week his "biggest concern" right now is Biden's upcoming defense budget.

"As we all know, he is being pressured from his left to reduce defense spending," Rogers said at an event hosted by the Ronald Reagan Institute. "Just two days ago, 50 Democrat House members wrote to Biden urging him to submit a budget that reduces the defense budget. In fact, even a HASC Democrat was on that letter."

"This is a real threat to the Pentagon's budget and makes working on the NDAA that much harder," he added, referring to the annual defense policy bill known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

A succession of Republicans also took to Twitter to blast the House Democrats' letter.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) tweeted that slashing the defense budget would be "disastrous," while Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said it would be "reckless" and Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) blasted "far-left lawmakers ... on a mission to undo President Trump's agenda."

"This caucus would let the [Chinese Community Party] and Russia shape the 21st Century to their liking, as well as jeopardize our allies and the American homeland," Rep. Rob Wittman (Va.), the top Republican on the House Armed Services's seapower subcommittee, said in his own tweet.

In response to Wittman, Pocan shot back, accusing Republicans of "fearmongering."

"If we literally cut our defense budget in half, we'd still spend: $100,000,000,000 more on defense than China. $300,000,000,000 more on defense than Russia," Pocan tweeted. "Please don't let the @GOP scare you into any more bottomless defense budgets. Thanks, Defense Spending Reduction Caucus."

Last year, Lee and Pocan and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pushed an amendment to cut the overall $740 billion defense budget, which includes both Pentagon funding and non-Pentagon sources such as the Energy Department's nuclear weapons funding, by 10 percent. The amendment failed by large bipartisan majorities in both chambers.

Rogers expressed confidence that any attempt at defense cuts would again be rejected.

"I'm certain that an NDAA or Defense appropriations with cuts will not pass the House," he said in his Reagan Institute speech. "House Republicans just won't go along with that. And I don't believe a majority of Democrats will either."

Speaking to reporters last month, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) predicted the jockeying over the defense budget, but said the 50-50 split in the Senate will require a bipartisan agreement. He said he expects a "tight" defense budget, rather than an increase.

"They'll be individuals on the right, who would urge for significant increases, you know, never enough. And then others on the left would say we have to just cut it dramatically and they can figure out what to do with what's left," he said.

"I think both sides are going to recognize, a majority, in fact more than a majority, are going to recognize that we have to continue our investment in national security and defense and the men and women who carry the burden for us. I think that will be the prevailing element at the end," he said.

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