By KRISTINA PETERSON and JULIAN E. BARNES
WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama will send Congress a fiscal year 2016 budget next week proposing both military and domestic spending at levels surpassing the limits lawmakers agreed to in a hard-fought 2011 deal.
After pledging to use their new congressional majority to rein in federal spending, many Republicans are likely to criticize Mr. Obama’s plan to ignore the curbs known as the sequester on nondefense spending. But on military spending, GOP lawmakers are divided over whether the Pentagon should absorb more cuts.
The debate forces Republicans to prioritize among two of the party’s top goals: bolstering national security and curbing government spending. And GOP lawmakers say minimizing either issue could pose long-term threats to the nation.
Republicans have been dueling each other over military spending since the 2011 deal locked in a decade’s worth of budget tightening. But the volume has diminished since a two-year bipartisan budget agreement eased the sting of across-the-board spending reductions.
Now, with the spending curbs set to resume in October, the debate has been revived. But many Democrats say they only would support a defense increase if it were accompanied by more nondefense spending.
“It’s a battle between the defense hawks and the fiscal hawks,” said Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “It’s not clear to me how this is going to turn out.”
The White House is expected to request a base Defense Department budget of roughly $534 billion, defense officials said, including a request for additional Joint Strike Fighters. That is about $35 billion above the $499 billion level at which the sequester would cap spending for the department, which accounts for more than 95% of total national military spending.
The budget also will include a war-funding request of $50.9 billion. In this fiscal year, the Defense Department’s budget was $496 billion.
“Our submission will be above sequester,” said a senior defense official. “The president believes he should submit the budget he believes is right for the security of the nation. So that is what he is going to do.”
Pentagon officials said the higher spending level is necessary to maintain the current military strategy.
Among those leading the GOP charge for higher military spending are the chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services committees, both of whom have said the spending curbs are impinging on the military’s ability to prepare and maintain its forces and equipment, as well as respond to an array of national-security threats, including the rise of Islamic State extremists.
“Let’s be clear: If we continue with these arbitrary defense cuts, we will harm our military’s ability to keep us safe,” said Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R., Ariz.) at a hearing on the issue Wednesday. “America’s national defense can no longer be held hostage to domestic political disputes totally separated from the reality of the threats we face.”
Many Republicans agree with Mr. McCain and his House counterpart, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R., Texas).
Possible 2016 GOP presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has opposed the sequester-imposed limits on military spending. But others say the spending caps agreed to at the end of the 2011 fight over the debt ceiling must be respected.
“We’ve been spending too much on defense for years because we have a lot of waste within the Department of Defense,” said Rep. Justin Amash (R., Mich.) “There’s room to cut, and I think we are perfectly capable of staying within the sequester caps.”
One high-profile ally of trimming military spending is Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.), another potential GOP 2016 presidential candidate, who highlighted the issue in his video response to the president’s State of the Union address last week. “To defend ourselves, we need a lean, mean fighting machine that doesn’t waste money on a bloated civilian bureaucracy,” said Mr. Paul, who plans to introduce legislation calling for an audit of the Pentagon.
Republicans also have sounded the alarm about the nation’s long-term fiscal prospects in the wake of this week’s Congressional Budget Office report forecasting the annual deficit would shrink moderately into 2017 before climbing again as retirement and health-care costs rise.
Pentagon officials said they have looked hard in recent years at what would be needed to get the budget under sequester, including cutting the Army to 420,000 soldiers from its current 506,000, and prematurely retiring a class of air-refueling tankers.
The first years of the sequester forced the Pentagon to rapidly cut back on training of Army units and flight hours for Air Force pilots, meaning fewer forces were ready to deploy overseas, according to defense officials.
The Pentagon also canceled or delayed some planned deployments of Navy ships, including an aircraft carrier bound for the Persian Gulf.
For some Republicans, the debate is whether and how to offset higher military spending. Some GOP lawmakers, including House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R., Ga.), have said they would consider trying to cut nondefense spending so that the boost to defense wouldn’t add to the overall federal budget deficit.
Mr. Obama’s budget, which includes some tax increases for wealthier Americans, is expected to include nondefense spending above the sequester level as well.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, argued, “Strategic investments in education, scientific research and infrastructure—things that help drive our economy—are important, and…we should deal with those investments at the same time as we deal with defense investments.”
In late 2013, lawmakers led by Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) reached an agreement to mitigate the sequester through fiscal year 2015.
In the House, many conservatives objected to increasing spending levels, and more than 60 Republicans voted against the deal.
Any similar agreement this year could face even more resistance from House Republicans, now that the GOP controls all of Congress, when lawmakers consider spending bills later this year.
That deal “wasn’t passed until December, and it was only passed after the government shutdown,” noted Mr. Harrison. “We may have to go through a crisis until we get to a point where they pass a deal.”