Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, is breaking with other congressional leaders by supporting most budget cuts proposed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. (James J. Lee / Staff)
WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel, with his first budget plan as US defense secretary, has managed to do the unthinkable: He has united Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill.
In short, they hate it.
Limited by spending caps erected by Congress, Hagel’s budget proposes large cuts to America’s ground combat forces, a number of controversial troop-benefits changes, retiring aircraft fleets and a round of politically white-hot base closures.
Republican hawks bristled at the 2015 Pentagon spending request Hagel described last week, saying it would instantly make America less safe and the military less ready to respond to a list of possible threats. Fiscal hawks began preparing for a fight over a coming $58 billion request from the White House, including $26 billion for defense, for things not included in the federal spending plan.
Democrats largely gave the plan political cover by holding fire, but few embraced its proposed cuts as strategically wise. For the most part, President Barack Obama’s fellow Democrats renewed their push to roll back the remaining eight years of sequestration cuts, saying Hagel’s plan shows more cuts would undercut military lethality and readiness.
The collective distaste with Hagel’s plan raised questions about whether he can convince his former congressional colleagues to approve most — or even some — of it.
Asked which of Hagel’s proposed cuts might garner ample congressional approval, the House Armed Services Committee’s ranking member, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., replied: “The better question is, which of these cuts is going to get congressional support?”
Smith broke with the other leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees by saying he “supports most of these cuts” proposed in the military spending plan Hagel outlined.
“There’s a clear sentiment on both sides, both Republicans and Democrats, on the Armed Services Committee that these cuts are too draconian,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Defense News.
Asked if he expects the four congressional defense committees to make a long list of changes to the 2015 DoD plan, McCain said, “Oh, I think you’ll see quite a bit of changes.”
McCain said he and other members are keen on finding ways to reverse the Navy’s planned cuts to shipbuilding.
“I think we really are hurting very much, according to our military leaders, in the least sexy items, and that’s operations and maintenance,” McCain said. “There are large numbers of Army units that are not operationally ready. That’s the one area, where if I had my first priority, it’d be O&M.”
The Democratic chairman of the Senate committee, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, also signaled major changes are likely.
“Congress always makes changes. But I think it’ll be more challenging this year because they’re proposing some pretty serious changes and reductions” in the request, Levin said in a brief interview.
In addition to shipbuilding cuts and a smaller Army, the Pentagon plan proposes retiring the entire A-10 attack plane fleet, and what members of both parties say are a slew of likely dead-on-arrival personnel benefits changes.
But the Pentagon likely is in store for its biggest fight over what is not — officially — part of its 2015 budget blueprint: $26 billion in unfunded defense “priorities” and another $32 billion in unfunded domestic ones.
“I think perhaps the real focus is going to be on that additional fund,” Levin said.
Levin said he and other lawmakers are eager to see the details of the $26 billion wish list.
Levin said both the $26 billion defense section and the $32 billion domestic portion would have to be offset within the federal budget before the funds could be appropriated by Congress, due to 2015 spending caps.
Because the defense “unfunded” list will be tethered to the domestic list, it already is something of a political time bomb on Capitol Hill, where Republicans are eager to quash any domestic victories for Obama.
The administration has told senior lawmakers it soon will propose what’s known on Capitol Hill as a “pay-for” that would clear space in the federal budget under the caps for the $26 billion in unfunded items.
That offset could include new federal revenues, Levin said. To that end, the administration often has floated and proposed new federal revenues as part of past fiscal legislation that the GOP has rejected.
Levin acknowledged the proposal could meet stiff resistance on the Hill because congressional Republicans’ “default” reaction to Obama’s budget maneuvers that propose new revenues “has been to oppose them.”
Conservative fiscal hawks in both chambers last week blasted Obama over the coming request for items not officially in his 2015 spending plan.
“The recent budget agreement … prohibited taxing and spending,” the Senate Budget Committee’s ranking member, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., told Defense News. He referred to the two-year budget agreement negotiated late last year by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the Republican and Democratic chairs of the chambers’ Budget committees.
“The president should comply with the law,” Sessions said. “Surely, it would be astounding that eight weeks after signing Ryan-Murray, he would propose to bust it. Astounding.”
In a sign of the fight ahead, Sessions rolled his eyes when informed by a reporter that the White House would be proposing an offset for the $58 billion list.
Gordon Adams, a former national defense budget official in the Clinton administration, said “that $26 billion package isn’t going anywhere in the House.
“You’ll see a big battle if the White House wants to have this so-called ‘investment fund,’ ” Adams said, using the Pentagon’s preferred phrase. “The Republicans in the House will never go for it. ... This is not a serious proposal, but it’s not the DoD’s fault. The White House is driving the train on this, and the Pentagon is merrily going along with it.
“Even Levin knows that won’t work,” Adams said. “They won’t get 60 votes in Senate and forget about the House.”
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a leading House GOP spending hawk, had some harsh words for the Obama “investment fund.”
“Seldom have I seen a president so blatantly disregard his official responsibilities and fail to address or acknowledge the devastating effects of our ongoing deficits,” Cole said in a statement. “Instead, this president seems content to fiddle while America burns.” ■