WASHINGTON ― With some House Democrats calling President Joe Biden’s defense top line too high, it looked like centrist Democrats would have to forge an alliance with Republicans to get defense bills passed.
But it’s unclear whether that alliance faced dimmer prospects on Thursday. Rep. Liz Cheney, a high-profile Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said the lack of 3-5 percent growth above inflation in the defense budget would be a “red line” for her and other Republicans.
“In my view, that is a red line, and if the administration is not going to be proposing a budget that meets that requirement, then I think they will need to explain to the American people why they’re unwilling to fund defense at the levels the nation needs,” the Wyoming representative told the McAleese Defense Programs Conference.
“It’s going to be important, obviously what is within the top line too,” she said. “I would clearly oppose budgets that were below that number, and I think we’re going to have a very healthy debate and discussion about the administration’s proposal because it is coming in significantly below that number.”
It is an open question how much influence Cheney commands with the Republican rank and file, having been ousted from a leadership post this week for vocally opposing former President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claims the 2020 election was stolen. Still, Cheney has been an influential voice for years on defense issues within the GOP.
Cheney also signaled that Republicans would resist the possible inclusion of measures to address climate change through the defense budget ― just as Democrats and some Republicans, including Cheney, opposed Trump’s diversion of defense funds to the border wall.
“[Former Defense Secretary] Jim Mattis’ admonition to us all that the lethality of the force is what matters is something we all need to remember,” Cheney said. “And so as we look at the potential for billions of dollars being redirected — for example, for climate change projects — I would have the same views about those as I did when we were seeing billions of dollars being redirected out of the defense budget to build the wall.”
The White House has delayed releasing its detailed fiscal 2022 budget request until later in the spring, but Biden has released a top-line request of $715 billion for the Pentagon, a 1.6 percent increase that’s roughly flat when adjusted for inflation.
The House Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, urged Biden toward the 3-5 percent boost, as has the Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma.
Cheney’s remarks came a day after the top Republican on the House’s Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, Rep. Rob Wittman of Virginia, called for the Pentagon’s budget to be increased to $753 billion, which is $38 billion more than Biden’s request and 3 percent above the $731.3 billion Congress approved for fiscal 2021.
Wittman is also pushing for the Navy to grow from 305 ships to more than 400, and he is against the planned retirement of Navy cruisers, which he says will lead to a loss of 1,200 missile tubes. Without the higher top line, “you’re going to have to take out resources, and that’s absolutely unacceptable,” he said.
Republicans’ remarks highlight the challenges for House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., as he works to build consensus around the annual National Defense Authorization Act. He has repeatedly emphasized the details of the budget over the top line, but ― to his vocal frustration ― the White House has delayed the release of those details. Meanwhile, Smith has taken aim at the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program’s costs and problems as a sign that defense acquisition is in sore need of a fix in the next NDAA.
“I don’t know where we’re going to come down on the number,” Smith said of the top line. “I do think that that focus, and I’ve said this many times in the last few weeks, is the wrong focus.”
That delay has not only hemmed in the budget debate but pushed back the committee’s work. According to Politico, Rogers expects a HASC markup in July ― when SASC has its markup planned ― and Smith said the full House won’t consider the NDAA until the fall.
Smith has warned that the White House’s sluggish release of its budget plans are endangering Congress’ ability to finish budget work before the start of the new fiscal year, Oct. 1, 2021. That suggests Washington will have to deploy a stopgap continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown.
On Thursday, Smith sounded an optimistic note the NDAA would be completed on a bipartisan, bicameral basis for the 61st time in a row.
“Now, I prefer if we got it done in sort of the October/November time frame, instead of the late December time frame that we’ve been working on the last couple of years. But if that’s how much time it takes, that’s how much time it takes,” he said. “It’s always a challenge, but I’m confident we will, as always ― 60 straight years now ― we’ll meet that challenge and get the bill done.”
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.