By Heidi Przybyla
Military supporters are counting on a new Republican-led Congress to roll back defense-spending cuts required by a 2011 budget agreement. First, they’ll have to get past Jeff Sessions and his allies.
The Alabama Republican, who’s in line to take over the Senate Budget Committee in January, and other lawmakers seeking to lower the U.S. deficit say they aren’t convinced the Pentagon needs more money. Even if they agree, restoring funds to the military would require comparable cuts to domestic programs, which Democrats reject.
“I’m going to be pushing to examine what their needs are,” Sessions, who’s planning a series of hearings, said in an interview. “We don’t want to add additional monies until we know what we want to add it for and be sure that we need it.”
While most major legislation has been stalled in Congress for four years, some budget analysts say they’re optimistic that Republican leaders will at least try to reduce the $35 billion in automatic defense cuts slated for the fiscal year starting next October. The Pentagon says those reductions would affect popular programs and personnel.
The automatic cuts in the 2011 budget deal, known as sequestration, are a potential area for compromise because they’re unpopular with both parties, and the deficit that triggered them has shrunk by two-thirds since 2009. Sequestration slashes $1.1 trillion in spending through 2021, divided equally between domestic and defense programs.
Hostilities in Ukraine, the beheadings of Americans in Syria and a bigger U.S. military footprint in Iraq also could sway lawmakers to support more Pentagon spending. Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work recently asked Congress to “stop this madness.”
“What’s happening in terms of the security situation of this country will hopefully change people’s minds,” said Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican who voted against the 2011 Budget Control Act.
The debate will occur in a new Congress controlled by Republicans. The party swept both chambers in the Nov. 4 election, which will empower lawmakers like Sessions committed to reducing the budget deficit.
His insistence that reductions would have to come elsewhere in federal spending to subsidize added Pentagon funding can’t easily be met. A bipartisan budget deal reached in late 2013 already used many of the politically easy fixes such as raising airline fees.
An agreement would require trading cuts in areas such as education and scientific research — or programs like Social Security and Medicare, all of which Democrats will resist. And Republicans will need the other party’s support because their Senate majority will fall short of the 60 votes required to advance most major legislation.
Undersecretary of Defense Michael McCord, the Pentagon’s comptroller, said he doesn’t see an end to sequestration soon, even with a Republican-led Congress. “Just knowing whether the Senate flipped or not was not going to bring us any huge amount of enlightenment,” McCord said in an interview.
Chris Chadwick, chief executive officer of Boeing Co. (BA)’s defense, space and security unit, agreed. “We may see some lessening of the pressures of sequestration but we just don’t foresee a wholesale change at this point,” he told Bloomberg reporters and editors in an interview before the election.
Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, one of the authors of the 2011 act, said at a Nov. 15 California conference that only a national security crisis would “shake Congress out of its funk” on the spending caps, according to National Defense, an industry group publication.
The history of sequestration shows how hard it will be for lawmakers to make a deal.
Created by Congress in 2011 as part of an agreement to raise the nation’s borrowing limit, it was the product of failed attempts by lawmakers and President Barack Obama to negotiate a grand bargain to rein in the deficit — and was never intended to take effect.
The reductions were designed to be so unpalatable and arbitrary that lawmakers would be compelled to come up with a way to replace them. That didn’t happen.
The congressional budget agreement reached in December 2013 eased sequestration cuts for fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015, the current year. Without further action, the reductions will take full effect again for fiscal 2016.
If that happens, the Pentagon will be forced to lower its proposed $535.1 billion request for fiscal 2016 to about $500 billion. That’s on top of the $37 billion in cuts for fiscal 2013 and $25 billion for 2014.
The spending battle will pick up next year as lawmakers start deliberations on the fiscal 2016 budget. That’s because the budget deal struck last December by Republican Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat who heads the budget panel, set spending levels through 2015.
Some Republicans are trying to lay the groundwork for a deal. Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas said sequestration was a topic of discussion during the party’s first post-election gathering last week in which they elected new leaders.
Instead of lifting the spending cap, Republicans may try to negotiate another smaller budget accord to lessen its bite, said Ed Lorenzen, a senior adviser to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which advocates for fiscal responsibility.
“The sequester has the potential to be the impetus for budget negotiations on a moderate-sized package that replaces part of the cuts with longer-term savings,” Lorenzen said.
Republicans led by Sessions will insist that health care and other domestic programs absorb some of the Pentagon’s share of cuts. That would be a deal breaker for Senate Democrats.
That means Republicans will ultimately have to compromise, said former Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, who was the second-ranking Republican before leaving Congress in 2013.
Murray said Democrats want to address “these senseless automatic cuts” in a way that strengthens domestic and defense programs.
“I’m hopeful Republican leaders can continue to push aside the Tea Party and work with us,” she said in a statement.
Senator Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican, said that won’t be easy. “There’s a pretty strong commitment to hold the bottom-line numbers,” said Crapo, who served on a bipartisan group of senators that tried for several years to negotiate a budget deal.
The funding reductions are at a point where popular military programs would be hit.
The Pentagon says it would have to scale back the number of aircraft carriers to 10 from 11 and adjust the number of helicopters and fighter jets such as F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets made by Chicago-based Boeing and possibly F-35 Joint Strike Fighters made by Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT)
Instead of the planned reduction to about 450,000 troops by 2019, the Army would have to pare its force to 420,000. The Marine Corps would have to be prepared to reduce personnel to 175,000 from an initial reduction to 182,000, the Pentagon says.
Those making the case to ease cuts will cite a declining deficit. The fiscal 2014 budget gap was $483 billion, about 66 percent below its 2009 high.
The advances by Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria and the specter of several more years of U.S. involvement in the Middle East may aid the case for compromise, said Boeing’s Chadwick.
“With the emerging threats worldwide it absolutely will evolve the debate, and there could well be opportunity and a lessening of the sequestration budget caps,” Chadwick said in an interview.