WASHINGTON — House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry confirmed Tuesday he secured a commitment from House GOP leaders for 15 percent defense budget growth over three years as part of an emerging budget deal.
But the commitment faces choppy seas. The deal — a nod to what Pentagon leaders say they need to preserve America's military edge — must survive a number of hurdles yet, including negotiations on a budget conference report, appropriations legislation, the debt limit and statutory budget caps, as well as bipartisan, bicameral budget negotiations.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., were party to the agreement, with the HASC, House Budget Committee and House Appropriations Committee "all on the same page," said Thornberry, R-Texas.
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Yet House Budget Chairwoman Diane Black, R-Tenn., seemed to hedge on Tuesday.
"Every year, the Congress has the ability to set those numbers," Black told reporters. "We make some assumptions, but that is up to future Congresses. We can't bind one Congress to the other."
Thornberry acknowledged the commitment was "not a guarantee."
"What I think is important is yes, we need a decent number in '18 to fix the problems, but we need to have predictable, sustained growth in the future," Thornberry said. "So part of the commitment from leadership is to work to accomplish that."
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have told Congress the military needs at least 3 percent annual growth to maintain America's competitive edge over China and Russia — particularly for America's ability to project power anywhere in the world.
Discretionary spending levels for the defense and non-defense sides of the budget appeared to be settled as of Monday, at least among House Republicans. The budget resolution is expected to include $621.5 billion for defense and $511 billion for non-defense in fiscal 2018. (DoD would get an additional $75 billion in wartime overseas contingency operations funding.)
Thornberry, in exchange for dropping his past insistence on a $640 billion for defense, secured the pledge of three 5 percent defense budget increases — one each in 2019, 2020 and 2021. The HASC plans to markup its version of the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act at the lower number.
Lawmakers would still have to find a legislative path to ease budget caps this year with agreement from the president and Senate Democrats. The proposal for $621.5 billion in base dollars would violate the $549 billion cap for defense.
Not part of the agreement is a vote on legislation for a full repeal of caps for defense. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the HASC Air and Land Subcommittee, had sponsored legislation to do so and won 141 House GOP signatures to a letter pressing Ryan for a floor vote.
Thornberry said that for the three years of defense increases in the deal, the caps would be "fixed." It was still unclear whether that means the caps would be repealed or adjusted.
"You've got to take it a step at a time; you can't solve the world's problems in a single bound," he said. "I think having all three committees on the same page for this year, fixing the BCA in subsequent years, would put defense in a much better path than we've been."
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the fiscally conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he was open to repealing budget caps or at least to suspend them for a year or two.
"I'm working on a plan," he said. "You don't have to have full repeal, but you have to have legislation to break the caps."
On Monday, news broke that the House Budget Committee will delay its markup of its fiscal 2018 budget resolution until July amid House GOP in-fighting over mandatory spending cuts.
While discretionary spending levels for the defense and non-defense sides of the budget appeared to be settled, there was a stalemate over whether to issue budget reconciliation instructions for $150 billion or $200 billion in cuts to mandatory spending over 10 years.
Conservatives favored the higher number and moderates the lower number. The decision was one among several that threaten to derail the budgeting process ahead of the start of fiscal 2018 and lead to a stopgap continuing resolution to fund the federal government.
"At this point, there are some critical decisions that have to be made. If not, we're going to wind up with a CR," Meadows said. "We have to make decisions on tax reform, on reforms on mandatory spending, on spending levels. All of those have got to come together with the debt ceiling."
Ultimately, Republicans must come to terms with Senate Democrats, whose support is needed to ease budget caps. Those negotiations have driven bipartisan omnibus spending legislation to fund the federal government for several years.
Rep. Charlie Dent, a House appropriator and key GOP moderate, dismissed the House budget numbers as "aspirational." He predicted the non-defense number would ultimately increase and the defense number would decrease, as they have tended to do.
"We know that whatever we agree to, $511 billion for non-defense and $621 billion for defense, we know this number will change There will be a bipartisan, bicameral budget agreement at some point. That will be the real number," Dent said.
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.