WASHINGTON — Senate Armed Services Committee leaders are urging congressional budget writers to clear the Pentagon to spend $577 billion next year, $54 billion above existing spending caps.

The Obama administration's 2016 budget request seeks $561 billion for defense, which is $38 billion over the caps. On Friday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, sent a letter to House Budget Committee Chair Tom Price, R-Ga., requesting at $566 billion in base 2016 funds, $43 billion more than the caps.

Pro-military lawmakers' efforts to persuade the chairs of the House and Senate Budget committees to give the Defense Department more annual funds continued Monday with a letter from SASC Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ranking Member Jack Reed, D-R.I., to Senate Budget panel leaders.

"We recommend that defense spending for FY 2016 be restored to pre-sequestration [Budget Control Act] levels," they wrote to Chairman Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and Ranking Member Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. "We would therefore request that you allocate $577 billion for FY 2016 in national defense discretionary budget authority and the associated outlays, in addition to the necessary funding for OCO."

The latter was a reference to the overseas contingency operations account, used to pay for America's armed conflicts and other items.

The 2011 BCA created sequestration and put in place defense and domestic spending limits. Members from both parties and the White House have continually blasted the automatic cuts as unwise, but none have produced a plan to replace them with our deficit-reducing measures that could pass both chambers.

But even though the spending levels are etched into that law, McCain and Reed told the Budget leaders "it is our constitutional responsibility, as an independent branch of government, to formulate our own views and estimates and provide for our national defense, regardless of current law or policy"

"Indeed, if we determine that existing laws and policies no longer serve our national security, it is our responsibility to propose new laws and policies," the SASC leaders write.

McCain and Reed argue "global crises and threats increasing," telling Enzi and Sanders "we believe that the limitations of the post-sequestration BCA — which require nearly $1 trillion of defense spending cuts over 10 years -- have become a national security crisis of the first order."

They acknowledge some members "insist that our nation cannot afford to spend more on defense at this time," but tell the Budget leaders "we believe we cannot afford not to."

"[All] four of the military service chiefs testified that American lives are being put at risk by the caps on defense spending mandated in the BCA. At a time when real worldwide threats are growing, we are compounding those dangers with a national security crisis of our own making.

There are two notable differences between Thornberry's letter to his chamber's Budget chairman and the McCain-Reed letter.

First, Thornberry offered something of a compromise target for the base 2016 Pentagon budget figure. He also pitched a specific funding level for the war-funding account.

"In light of the threats facing the nation, as well as the resource shortfall facing the military discussed in greater detail below," Thornberry wrote, "the [HASC] recommends a restoration to the pre-sequestration BCA caps of $566.0 billion for national defense and $50.9 billion in the Overseas Contingency Operations account."

The McCain-Reed letter does not mention a specific OCO amount, nor does it propose a base budget amount in between the pre-sequestration level and the president's 2016 request.

Instead, McCain and Reed want back every pre-Budget Control Act dollar — and however many OCO funds Congress and the White House believe are necessary for ongoing operations.

"As growing global threats increase the demands on our military, we must either increase our resources to meet our strategic requirements, or we must reduce our strategic requirements to match our limited resources," the SASC leaders said. "We cannot have it both ways."

Analysts doubt lawmakers can agree on a 2016 budget resolution, arguing the two parties are too far apart — including intraparty divisions that surfaced last week during the Department of Homeland Security funding fight — to pass a plan that raises the spending caps.

email: jbennett@defensenews.com

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