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WASHINGTON — The US House Armed Services Committee’s top Democrat is “open” to the Pentagon budget increase GOP defense hawks are proposing.

The Obama administration offered Congress a defense budget request that falls in line with last year’s bipartisan budget agreement. But some House Republicans are arguing for an increase of as much as $23 billion, saying the deal established $59 billion for the overseas contingency operations (OCO) account as a minimum, to be raised in line with current threats.

“I think $609 billion in the president’s budget is a pretty solid starting point, and I’m open to the idea that maybe we need a little more,” HASC Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith said in a C-Span interview aired over the weekend.

The Washington state Democrat said he could be convinced to support an increase, though he disagreed that $59 billion was set as a minimum, an idea advanced by House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and other hawkish Republicans. Smith said Republican suggestions the president’s budget underfunds defense were “over-the-top presidential election year rhetoric” and “more partisan and political than substantive.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan is trying to rally fiscally conservative lawmakers from the House Freedom Caucus to back a budget that would hew to the top lines of last year’s Bipartisan Budget Act. Citing projections of a $19 trillion national debt and a spiking deficit, its members have demanded a $30 billion cut to comply with statutory budget caps eased by a deal they never supported.

The budget deal treated OCO, which is exempt from BCA caps, as the overflow receptacle for billions of dollars in base budget requirements. Smith said the latest efforts to add to defense through OCO were “hypocrisy,” and a way for Republicans to bridge this rift.

“That’s largely semantics for Republicans who are trying to cling to the notion that they are sticking to budget caps,” Smith said. “It’s still money. It still has the same impact on the deficit and the budget, whether you raise the caps, even if you the play the game of sticking it in OCO, which it is not.“

Smith said he favors raising the budget caps to accommodate increased defense spending.

“I’m open to that discussion while being critical of putting it through OCO, if that’s the only way the Republicans will do it,” Smith said.

Email: jgould@defensenews.com

Twitter: @reporterjoe

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