SIMI VALLEY, California — Despite President-elect Donald Trump's pledge to raise defense spending, Sen. Lindsey Graham expects a tough path ahead.
Speaking at the Reagan National Defense Forum here, the South Carolina Republican and influential member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Congress will have to deal with the intractable and politically charged problem of statutory budget caps—commonly called sequestration.
"To our friends, its easy to say we will increase defense spending, it's going to be harder than it looks, but we will get there because failure is not an option," Graham said.
Defense spending levels under the caps, Graham said, are "insane, even by Washington standards." On the one hand, most Democrats insist on parity for defense and non-defense spending, and House fiscal hawks will insist it be paid for without deficit spending.
Ultimately, Graham predicted the answer is to cut a deal with Democrats that includes some non-defense spending because Republicans —who expect to have 52 seats in the Senate next year — will need a 60-vote supermajority to advance politically-charged spending legislation.
Graham expressed sympathy for both sides, particularly for the non-defense side of the budget, which includes national security spending for the FBI and CIA. Buying back sequestration, he said, would be, "a blood bath."
"I think sequestration relief is at hand," Graham told Defense News after the panel. "A fight within the Republican Party whether you pay for it and how you pay for it. A fight with the Democrats, will it be defense only."
In the near term, Graham — as some other hawkish Republicans — expects a supplemental spending bill in the early days of the Trump administration. To get 60 votes, he said, it will require non-defense spending too.
Graham said he and Senate Armed Services Chair John McCain, R-Ariz., are "on the war path" for more defense spending, "but there are some deals being make." Democrats, he predicted, will budge on the parity principle to make a deal.
"It is their nation too. It is their military too," Graham said. "I think we can find the sweet spot on non-defense spending and defense spending to get enough Democrats. The primary focus is to rebuild the military at a time we're going to need it the most."
Aaron Mehta in Simi Valley, California, contributed to this report.