WASHINGTON — Senators are giving a lukewarm assessment to a House Republican plan to inflate the Pentagon's annual budget by swelling the war-funding account.
House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., on Tuesday rolled out the Republican's 2016 federal budget resolution. Among myriad other proposals is one that would, if it passes the full House and Senate, give defense authorizers and appropriators $39 billion above the Pentagon's $561 billion request when they craft their annual Pentagon bills.
The Obama administration requested $561 billion for national defense, $38 billion above spending caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act. The administration also is seeking $50.9 billion for the overseas contingency operations (OCO) account. That would be a total of $611.9 billion.
Price's budget plan would take the OCO account all the way to $90 billion, while funding national defense at the budget caps. For DoD within the national defense pot of money, the caps would mean the congressional defense panels would have $499 billion to work with for fiscal 2016 — and the additional $39 billion in war funding to spread out as they see fit.
The plan was met almost immediately with furrowed brows and shaking heads in the Senate, with even some defense hawks scoffing at the budgetary tactic.
"It's not accurate accounting. I would rather just see us just face reality that we have to raise the spending caps," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., told CongressWatch. "It's clearly a gimmick."
The Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin, who also is the ranking member of the Appropriations Defense subcommittee, would not use the "g word" when asked about Price's plan.
Instead, he said the concept of using the war fund to offset base budget cuts would be "certainly not traditional budgeting."
SASC Ranking Member Jack Reed was less reluctant to slap the "g word" on the House GOP plan.
"I think it's a gimmick more than anything," the Rhode Island Democrat told reporters.
Senate Budget Committee Ranking Member Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., says he, too, opposes the tactic.
"Given the fact that we have tens of millions of Americans struggling to keep their heads above water economically, at the very least, there has to be an equal increase in non-defense, as well," Sanders said.
"I think it's a bad idea," he added, declining to say whether Democrats would filibuster — and essentially kill — a budget resolution featuring a Price-like plan.
A few weeks ago, Sanders made clear Democrats would block any measure that proposed raising defense spending but not domestic spending.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., a former Appropriations Committee ranking member, said he would be in favor, like McCain and other Senate hawks, of passing legislation to raise the defense caps.
"I think that defense is suffering right now. National security is important," Shelby told reporters. "If we're going to have a defense that's second to none in the world, we're going to have to pay for it. We can't do it on the cheap."
He sidestepped questions about Price's proposed use of the war fund to relieve that "suffering."
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, last session the Senate Budget Committee's top Republican, said of the tactic of using war funds, which many in Washington call a "slush fund" and aren't subject to the spending caps, "It could be abused."