Pentagon Budget Becomes Major Bargaining Chip
Policy + Politics

Pentagon Budget Becomes Major Bargaining Chip

Ken Hammond/Courtesty of the U.S. Air Force/Getty Images

With the White House and congressional Republicans struggling to avert a government shutdown this weekend, defense spending, which represents about 20 percentof the federal budget, has surfaced as a major bargaining chip in the tense budget talks.

Lawmakers from both parties are looking warily at House Republicans' proposal to fully fund the Pentagon for the remaining six months of the current fiscal year while administration and Hill negotiators continue to haggle over the depth of cuts to domestic programs and government agencies. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the House would attempt to pass the measure on Thursday, despite strong opposition from President Obama and the Democrts. 

While Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been pressing Congress for some certainty over the defense budget, lawmakers and political strategists see the GOP proposal as a double-edged sword.

On one hand, Republicans and Democrats agree that funding the military which is fighting three wars simultaneously in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya is essential.  With U.N. coalition forces bombarding Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi from the sea and air, the United States’ part in the operation could ultimately reach several billion dollars -- and require the Pentagon to request emergency funding from Congress to pay for it.

However, if defense spending for the remainder of fiscal 2011 is taken off the table, it could make it much harder to agree on the rest of the spending levels for domestic programs.

"I don't think anything should be taken off the table," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., noting that the portion of the domestic discretionary spending Republicans and Democrats are fighting over constitutes only about 12 percent of the overall budget. 

Moreover, Democrats and some Republicans note that Gates and other Pentagon officials readily acknowledge the Pentagon budget can be easily trimmed in many areas.  Military spending this year, including for the wars, is between $650 billion and $700 billion.

With long-term procurement projects experiencing major cost-overruns, according to a recently released Government Accountability Office report, it won’t be long before Congress and the White House come face to face with the fact that any meaningful deficit reduction plan must tackle defense. The president’s bipartisan deficit commission recommended a dollar in defense cuts for every dollar in cuts to domestic discretionary spending. That all goes out the window with a fully-funded military through the rest of the fiscal year.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., unveiled on Monday a proposed seventh stop-gap spending resolution to keep the government operating through April 15 while the talks continued. That measure would fund the Defense Department through the remainder of the fiscal year at current levels and make $12 billion in other spending cuts. GOP leaders also are insisting on attaching amendments to that resolution that would limit money for abortions in the District of Columbia.

Obama on Tuesday flatly rejected the idea of another short-term extension, after negotiations at the White House with the Republicans and Senate leaders collapsed. He said at an impromptu White House news conference that it would be inexcusable if federal agencies were forced to begin to close down on Saturday because House Republicans and Senate Democrats could not reach a compromise over a relatively narrow slice of the budget.

The dispute appears to be coming down to whether to cut a total of $40 billion from this year’s domestic spending, as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, appears to favor, or accept the $33 billion in cuts that Democratic leaders propose.   But some are urging the president to relent on defense spending. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Senate Budget Committee, suggested that fully funding the Pentagon through the rest of this fiscal year would make it easier to reach agreement on the rest of the budget. “It creates a lot of momentum because not many people want to be in a position of saying they voted against our troops.”

The calls to fund the military on a semi-permanent basis have been increasing, particularly since the institution of the “no fly” zone in Libya, and its cost-- estimated at $600 million in the first six days. The funding through September would give the Pentagon the ability to plan. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in particular, has been urging budget negotiators to put the Pentagon on solid footing. He suggested Tuesday that to do so would not adversely impact the other parts of the budget.

Conversely, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who sits on the Joint Economic Committee, said taking defense out of the negotiation for this year’s fiscal budget “makes it a little bit harder [to agree]. While we all want to support our troops, we also want to make sure that if there are ways we can cut spending without hurting their ability to fight, we want to do that. Shared benefit, shared sacrifice.”

“I can see both sides,” said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “We have to fund the military budget, but I’d like to see everything funded until September.”

Related links:
Rep. Ryan's Budget Doesn't Touch Military Spending (The National Interest)
Pentagon Faces Yet another Battle: On the Budget Front (CNN)
Secretary of State Took Defense Secretary Gates to the Hoop--What's Next? (Huffington Post)