WASHINGTON ― Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday challenged Democratic President Joe Biden to boost defense spending to show he’s serious about working with Republicans to confront China ― a new salvo in a brewing battle over the federal budget.

The comments came as Biden’s secretaries of state and defense traveled to Asia to criticize China’s “coercion and aggression” there, and as 50 House Democrats urged him to “significantly” slash the $700 billion-plus Pentagon budget.

“If the administration is up to the task, they’ll find strong partners in this Republican conference,” McConnell, of Kentucky, said on the Senate floor. “Here’s one big test: Are they willing to keep investing in our own defense?”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and other lead Democrats are crafting bipartisan legislation to confront China, which is likely to focus on the economic and diplomatic levers of America’s national power. But McConnell signaled he wants to link Republican cooperation to his demand for increased defense spending.

“If any issue is ripe for a regular-order bipartisan process, it is this one,” McConnell said. “Defense spending is the crucial first step.”

McConnell expressed dismay over reports the Pentagon is building a budget proposal for fiscal 2022 in the range of $704 billion to $708 billion ― which would be right around the $705 billion enacted for fiscal 2021. The proposal is expected in early May.

“If the administration is serious about competing with China, deterring Russia and preserving American leadership, the most important test will be in the president’s budget submission,” McConnell said.

“Unfortunately, reports suggest the Biden administration may plan to freeze defense spending. Of course that means a reduction, after inflation. Dozens of Democrats are pressuring the administration for even steeper cuts.”

The letter from progressives to Biden was organized by former Progressive Caucus Chairs Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and Mark Pocan, D-Wis. It was co-signed by prominent progressives like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ro Khanna of California. The signatories hope to redirect defense funding to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

“In the last three years alone — during a time of relative peace — we have increased annual defense spending by more than $100 billion, almost 20 percent,” they wrote. “This has occurred during a period without any military action authorized by this Congress. Right now, the coronavirus is our greatest adversary.”

Pushback against a sweeping cut would not only come from Senate Republicans. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., has said such a move makes for “more policy pronouncements than ... good policy.”

House Armed Services Committee Republicans led by Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., have called for a defense increase of 3-5 percent, adjusted for inflation. They say that’s what is needed to realize the Russia- and China-focused National Defense Strategy released in 2018.

Democrats are expected to need Republican votes to pass a defense budget this year.

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.

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