WASHINGTON — The number two man at the Pentagon believes a budget deal will be reached to avoid sequestration levels of funding, good news to those in the defense industry who are nervously tracking the budget debate in Washington.
Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work also said that Russia's continued aggression in Europe will play a major part in shaping the next budget put forth from the Pentagon.
Work said Monday that three months ago he would have thought sequestration was "better than a 50-50 proposition," but that today he is "pretty certain we won't get to sequestration-level funding."
The difference between then and now, he told an audience at the Rand Corp.oration, comes from the actions of Congress in the face of threats by President Barack Obama to veto congressional spending bills.
"Because of the President's strong veto threat, and because we've now demonstrated veto-sustaining votes in the house and senate," things have changed, Work said. "The whole point of this is to try and encourage both sides of the aisle and both chambers of congress to get together and do another Ryan-Murray-type bipartisan budget agreement. That is the purpose of our strategy. And at least right now, we have set up the conditions for that to occur."
White House officials have promised a veto on the Senate's defense authorization measure — and a host of other appropriations bills — over moves by Hill Republicans to use temporary war funds to get around mandatory spending caps on defense funding next year.
Obama and congressional Democrats want a compromise that lifts the spending limits for defense and nondefense spending. In a letter to the Senate earlier this month, White House officials said the war funding move "ignores the long-term connection between national security and economic security" and warrants a veto.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter has supported the veto threat, even though the Republicans' plan would fund military programs at the level administration officials requested earlier this year.
While sequestration may not happen, Work highlighted the uncertainty that prevails over just how much money the Pentagon would get in a new budget deal.
He said history shows such deals tend to end with the department getting 60 percent of what the president asked for, which would leave the Pentagon with about $20 billion over the congressionally mandated budget caps — welcome funding, but not nearly what department leadership says it needs to modernize the force while maintaining readiness.
"So it all will be the art of what we give up to free the headspace to address these challenges," Work said. "I don't think it is reasonable to expect that [the budget situation is] going to get better in the next two years. They might get better after the next presidential election, depending on who wins and if they run on a strong defense platform or not, but none of us knows. So it's not something we can count on."
Work also said the actions of Russia — which he called a "clear and present danger" that was "largely unexpected" when forming recent budgets — will impact how the department allocates funds in the fiscal 2017 budget request.
How that shows through is not clear at the moment, Work later told reporters, although he repeated the statements Carter has made this week during his trip to the NATO defense ministers' meeting in Brussels that a "Cold War model" is not viable.
"What we're looking for is a model that is based on more agility and more flexibility, and working with our partners in NATO," Work said. "I can't tell you right now how that will manifest itself, but it is not going to be trying to restructure a Cold War posture of heavy forces overseas."
Leo Shane in Washington contributed to this report.