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Battle brewing over defense spending


The House, Senate and President Trump are heading toward a collision over next year’s defense budget.

A recent report ordered by Congress found that the U.S. military is facing a "grave" erosion in superiority.

Senate Republicans see the report as evidence of the need for a $733 billion defense budget in the next fiscal year.

But Democrats who will control the House starting in January want to cut defense spending. And Trump has already ordered his administration to trim the defense budget to $700 billion for next year.

All that combines for what is likely to be a fiery and lengthy debate in the coming budget season.

“I think there’s a good possibility that we get back in that pattern where they’re not able to make much progress in Congress on an overall budget deal to raise the budget caps, so we start the year on a continuing resolution and they just keep pushing it off and pushing it off,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s going to be an interesting year.”

Shortly before the Nov. 6 midterm elections, Trump ordered his Cabinet heads to cut their planned budget proposals for fiscal 2020 by 5 percent, citing concerns of a rising deficit.

But the Pentagon had already finished writing its budget by the time Trump’s order came down. As such, the Defense Department plans to present Trump with two budgets: the original one and the slimmed-down one.

“What I want the president to understand when we bring it forward is, what are those tradeoffs,” Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters about offering Trump two budgets. “This is either you get reduced capacity, I get lower quantities of procurement, a changed modernization, my reforms are a certain size.”

“So those are the things that he needs to have an awareness of what that number really translates to in terms of performance here at the department,” he said, referring to the $700 billion amount.

Cyber, space, Army modernization and hypersonics are among the items that will be prioritized in the lower budget, he added.

Regardless of the final number, Shanahan promised that the fiscal 2020 budget will “be a masterpiece.”

Because the Pentagon plans to give Trump two options, Harrison said he is skeptical Trump’s final proposal will be $700 billion.

Defense Secretary James Mattis, Harrison said, “is going to go back and appeal this to the president.”

“And the track record when the secretary of defense has a disagreement with the budget director and they go to the president to decide it, the track record on that is the secretary of defense is almost always going to win that argument,” Harrison said.

It’s ultimately up to Congress, though, to decide how much money will be allotted for the Pentagon. And GOP defense hawks on Capitol Hill have a new cudgel in their shed to argue for increased defense spending.

The National Defense Strategy Commission, a 12-member panel created by Congress to study and make recommendations on the U.S. defense strategy, recently released its final report.

The commission concluded that U.S. military superiority “has eroded to a dangerous degree” because of political, financial and international issues. Its report warned there will be “grave and lasting” consequences if Washington doesn’t act quickly to reverse the damage and adequately fund the Pentagon.

“The U.S. military could suffer unacceptably high casualties and loss of major capital assets in its next conflict,” the commission, headed by Eric Edelman, former ambassador and under secretary of Defense for policy, wrote in the report. “It might struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China or Russia. The United States is particularly at risk of being overwhelmed should its military be forced to fight on two or more fronts simultaneously.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) immediately used the report to draw a $733 billion line in the sand on next year’s defense budget.

“I agree with the commission’s report that there must be ‘greater urgency and seriousness in funding national defense’ in order to ensure we can undertake essential nuclear and conventional modernization while rectifying readiness shortfalls,” Inhofe said in a statement the day the report was released. “That is why I believe the $733 billion defense budget originally proposed by President Trump for fiscal year 2020 should be considered a floor, not a ceiling, for funding our troops.”

Inhofe scheduled a Nov. 27 committee hearing to discuss the report, and he’s expected to further press his case for a $733 billion budget.

But unlike the last two years of defense spending increases, the other chairman at the negotiating table will be a Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.).

When asked for comment on the commission report and what it means for defense spending, a spokesman for Smith told The Hill that “he does not have a statement at this time.”

But Smith has said one of his priorities as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee will be to look for ways to trim the defense budget. In his letter announcing his bid to be chairman he promised he will “look to eliminate inefficiency and waste” at the Pentagon.

Progressives on the committee, who could be a thorn in the wider party’s side, are also signaling their intentions ahead of the upcoming budget battle.

“There’s no doubt that we need to stay competitive with Russia and China, but we don’t win by building up our military,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) tweeted the night the commission report was released. “We win by helping workers prepare for the digital age by investing in broadband and fiber, expanding universities, and increasing funding to [the National Institutes of Health] and [the National Science Foundation].”

Based on past trends, Harrison predicted House Democrats will ultimately agree with Senate Republicans to boost defense spending if they also get increases in non-defense spending.

“That’s what we saw happen throughout the Obama administration, is Democrats just use the budget caps to protect non-defense,” Harrison said. “And so I think we’ll see the same dynamic play out this next year. Democrats will be willing to go along with more defense spending as long as it’s matched with an increase in non-defense spending.”

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