WASHINGTON — The $5 billion defense cut dictated by the budget deal between Congress and the White House will be painful for as-yet-unnamed programs, a powerful lawmaker on defense said Monday.
"There will be real programs that are cut, and that's what we're trying to finalize today with the appropriators and the Senate," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. William "Mac" Thornberry, R-Texas. "We are looking at them all and trying to do the least damage, but nobody should be under the illusion that you can do this in a non-painful way. There's going to be pain."
The House and Senate Armed Services Committees are nearly done identifying the source of the $5 billion they must cut as part of a two-year budget deal that gives the Pentagon nearly everything it wanted. Under the plan, fiscal 2016 defense spending would be raised to $607 billion, $5 billion less than the top-line figure authorizers budgeted to before the deal.
"There are real programs that have to be cut to get to $5 billion, fewer things we can buy, things we have to slow down," Thornberry said. "There are these little adjustments, but there will be a substantial amount that is cut."
Thornberry rejected the thought of spreading the cut across many accounts to achieve the least amount of pain, calling it "a really bad way to make decisions: to cut everything a little bit."
"There's not enough fat that you can take an inch off the top here and avoid getting into the meat," he said. "You get into the meat."
It is unclear whether the vetoed 2016 National Defense Authorization Act will be resurrected through an override — an option on Congress' calendar for Thursday — or by reintroducing the bill, amended only to reflect the $5 billion cut. Thornberry and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have said they expect to see the policy provisions in the bill move forward unaltered.
Both chairmen have said they expect the newly elected House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, to chart the path, whether through a veto override or as new legislation. Thornberry said the House was "within the ballpark" of votes needed to override the veto. He has been in discussions with Democrats willing to override and he believes that most of the Republicans who initially voted for the bill will vote to override.
Even after an override, Congress would still have to pass a bill that reflects the $5 billion cut. A fresh bill might be easier to support, but that approach, Thornberry said, would require fending off amendments.
"We will be ready for both options this week," Thornberry said.
It is up to appropriators to conference and pass their spending bills before Dec. 11 to avoid a government shutdown. Thornberry said he presumed the bills would pass with bipartisan support, but quipped that it would be up to the new House speaker.
"That's Paul's problem," he said.
The budget deal's two years of stability for defense was worth the $5 billion cut, Thornberry said. Still, factoring for inflation, defense was cut 21 percent from 2010 to 2014, Thornberry said, and "a modest increase does not repair that damage."
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.