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New defense budget poised to meet lower expectations

May 19, 2017 (Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Pro-military U.S. lawmakers believe the Pentagon needs a major boost above U.S. President Donald Trump's budget, but it’s unlikely Congress will oblige this year.

Trump's 2018 budget request is itself a placeholder at $603 billion — $18.5 billion more than the Obama administration projected for 2018. On the high end is the $640 billion target advanced by the House and Senate armed services committee chairmen, which they say is needed to repair a military readiness crisis Obama left behind. 

But powerful House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, said Thursday that $603 billion for the 2018 defense appropriations bill is "reasonable" and that $640 billion — which exceeds statutory budget caps by roughly $90 billion — won't be reached “unless something drops from heaven.”

“I don’t see how we get to that number this year, though we can get as close as we can this year, and the next year and the next year,” Granger said at a Bloomberg Government event in Washington.  

Asked for his reaction later on Thursday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, told reporters that $640 billion is what’s needed to repair underfunded readiness accounts and “keep the president’s promises.”

“These numbers have real-world consequences,” Thornberry said. “Too often we just split the difference. … You have to look at the world and say: 'What are we willing to live without?' "

The White House’s $603 billion base budget proposal for national defense, expected to be released May 23, would exceed spending caps by $54 billion and is about $18.5 billion more than the Obama administration projections for 2018. Much of that increase is expected to be eaten up by personnel costs connected to troop pay raises and recent end-strength growth, leaving little headroom to plus-up procurement programs. 

Comparing Trump’s budget with the early years of the Reagan administration buildup, and others, Katherine Blakeley, a defense budget expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said: “This is not a historic increase.” 

“The political characterization is that we are at the early part, and we should expect an upward drive,” Blakeley said. “We won’t see a lot of that in [the president’s 2018 budget], but they are clearly laying the groundwork for that.

“In this budget, you see some trial balloons, like: Can we have an accelerated path to Navy shipbuilding?"

Insiders agree the 2018 numbers are merely planting seeds for future growth, focusing on Defense Secretary James Mattis’ plans to rebuild readiness in the near term, as he described in a January memo. That focus is expected to translate into more training, depot maintenance and flying hours.

In other words, it’s a long way from Trump’s campaign promise to build a 355-ship Navy, grow the Army and Marine Corps by 60,000 and 12,000 troops, respectively, and add at least 100 combat planes to the Air Force.

And if defense watchers are looking to the 2018 budget submission for Trump's plan to get there, they may be disappointed. A source familiar with the 2018 Pentagon budget said it’s likely Trump would skip the tradition of including be top-line numbers for the next five years, as those numbers hinge on ongoing internal studies like the Nuclear Posture Review and the National Security Strategy.

There was “largely good work” done by the team that started assembling this last year, but this budget reflects awareness that strategic shifts may be coming and seeks to leave some wiggle room for the administration and the Pentagon’s new leadership to color within the lines, the source said.

Yet the president’s budget faces a tough path through Congress. Democrats are needed to reach the 60 vote threshold to ease budget caps, and they and others are already objecting to Trump’s plans to pay for defense increases with non-defense cuts.

“How in the world can [Republicans] justify the spending — the spending increase for the Department of Defense?” Sen. Richard Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat and the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, said Wednesday. “They’ll tell you behind closed doors they’re going to take it out of Medicare and Social Security. Try it, just try it.”   

High-level congressional Republicans have also expressed skepticism about Trump’s budget plans. Granger, who opposes the administration’s proposal to cut 28 percent of the State Department’s budget, including many foreign aid programs, suggested Congress will reject this part of Trump’s budget. 

“That’s the president’s budget, not Congress’ budget, I say with a smile, because we do control the purse,” she said. 

On defense, observers expect Congress will reach a budget deal by meeting somewhere between the Obama and Trump numbers on defense, likely by moving some funds into the emergency overseas contingency operations account, or OCO, which is exempt from budget caps.

Though Trump is seeking $54 billion above spending caps, Congress has on average added about $18.5 billion for defense each year, according to Blakeley. “I don’t see an easy path to getting thrice as much," she noted.

“I don’t think there will be as much defense buildup in practice as the budget might lay out,” Blakeley said. “It’s just not there … and the politics are just collapsing more and more every day.”

One possibility for more defense spending is that the House Armed Services Committee, with approval from its Senate counterpart John McCain, R-Ariz., drives for a major plus-up in OCO — in defiance of fiscal hawks, and with cooperation from some Democrats, Blakeley said. 

“There is the space for the defense hawks, who are not only Republicans,” Blakeley said. “It will be substantively difficult for any Democrat to cooperate with the administration, [but] there might be a path to cooperate with Sen. McCain and Rep. Thornberry to say: 'We the Congress are cooperating on a budget. We’re going to throw out the [president’s budget] when it arrives and keep this in the legislative branch.' "

Email:  jgould@defensenews.com    

Twitter:  @reporterjoe 

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