Seeking to boost their election-year bona fides as champions of national defense, House Republicans are proposing to sharply increase spending on Pentagon weapons systems by siphoning money from military operations in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
The move, which would send billions of dollars into congressional districts where such big-ticket items like the long-troubled F-35 fighter jet are made, is drawing objections from Democrats, the Pentagon and even from some key Republicans who call it an irresponsible election-year gambit.
The GOP hawks, led by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry of Texas, are using the annual National Defense Authorization Act to press for $18 billion beyond what the Obama administration had requested for the military, aiming to increase the size of the armed forces and buy more fighter jets, warships and other equipment.
It’s a blueprint for “rebuilding the military” in a year when those words have become a buzz phrase for Republican presidential contenders and congressional candidates alike.
But it also chops funds that the Pentagon had proposed to spend in hot spots like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan and to beef up defenses in Europe. The House Republicans hope that the next president will be forced to make up that money by asking Congress for extra funding to shore up a war-spending account known as Overseas Contingency Operations fund.
In effect, it’s a gambit intended to boost overall defense spending, violating the spirit of last year’s bipartisan budget deal while adhering to the letter.
The maneuver, though, is opening up House GOP defense hawks to attacks that they’re shortchanging U.S. troops in the field to pay for weapons programs. And even some prominent Republicans are voicing major reservations.
In the Senate, Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he doesn’t plan to use the same funding scheme in his own version of this year’s defense policy bill. And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of both the Armed Services and Defense Appropriations panels, said he has “real concerns” with the House decision.
“You’re taking money out of the warfighter’s pocket oversees and putting it into basically the base budget,” Graham told POLITICO. “You’re shorting the warfighter. The way to do this is not take it out of [war spending] — just go ahead and add $18 billion to the topline.”
The House measure would authorize purchases of 11 more F-35 fighter jets than the Obama administration requested and 14 more F-18 Super Hornets. It would also prohibit the administration from retiring an aircraft carrier air wing and halt a planned drawdown of the Army, among many other increases.
“In the end this administration’s got to come to grips with the fact that they’re leaving, and this bill is about the future and that future is a new administration,” said Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, a senior member of the Armed Services panel and a leading GOP defense hawk. “They should look at this … sign it and walk out of the White House.”
On Wednesday, though, Defense Secretary Ash Carter called Thornberry’s plan “deeply troubling.”
“It’s gambling with warfighting money at a time of war — proposing to cut off our troops’ funding in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in the middle of the year,” Carter told the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.
Another staunch GOP defense hawk, Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, countered that it was President Barack Obama who put Congress is “this untenable position.”
“The whole world is burning down, and this president is standing there watching with a golf club in his hands,” he told POLITICO.
But Democrats counter that Republicans have tied themselves in a knot trying to please their two dueling factions, defense hawks and fiscal hardliners. And the camps’ competing visions have prevented the passage of a GOP budget resolution for next fiscal year.
A number of top Democrats say they’d be willing to boost defense spending it it were accompanied by commensurate increases for domestic federal agencies — above the caps mandated by last year’s two-year budget agreement.
Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee “are completely hamstrung by their party, which cannot even pass a budget,” said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a former Marine Corps officer who served in Iraq. He called Thornberry’s budget scheme “complete gymnastics.”
“It’s frustrating not just for us and the committee — it’s frustrating for our troops,” he said in an interview. “The chairman is trying to do the best he can, but his hands are tied by his own party.”
The defense authorization bill was approved by the House Armed Services Committee after midnight on Thursday following a 16-hour markup in a 60-2 vote. Democrats went along with the measure, but made clear they aren’t on board with the funding scheme baked into it— previewing a big fight when the bill comes to the House floor as scheduled on May 16..
“It’s not an authentic authorization bill because it’s robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), one of the two lawmakers to vote against the bill. “You don’t plus up when you don’t have the money to plus up.”
The panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, called it a “risky proposition” to cut funds for U.S. military operations abroad in the hopes more money will come later to make up the difference.
“I would love to see the Budget Control Act go away tomorrow, but if it doesn’t we are going to have some very difficult decisions,” he said in a statement. “We have artfully put those off, but I think every member needs to prepare for how to approach that reckoning when it comes.”
Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.
Powered by WPeMatico