Obama bid to end 'sequestration' spending limits divides Republicans

Obama's defense budget is separating GOP's defense hawks from its deficit hawks

President Obama revived his call Thursday to end federal spending limits linked to a last-resort deficit deal reached nearly four years ago, an appeal that fell squarely in the divide between Republicans in Congress who want to rein in costs and those who want to boost the Pentagon’s budget.

Obama has repeatedly asked Congress to “fully reverse” the so-called sequestration cuts that were part of a 2011 deal and intended to be so unpalatable they would never be enacted. But they took effect in 2013 after lawmakers failed to reach a compromise to avert them. The president’s pleas to lift the restraints have produced only temporary, and partial, changes.

But changing circumstances could give new life to Obama’s requests, at least on defense spending. A shrinking deficit, a new Republican-led Congress and the Pentagon’s need to fund the 6-month-old fight against Islamic State militants who continue to seize land and terrorize cities across Iraq and Syria could work in the president’s favor.

“This administration has been very clear, as have our military leaders, about the fact that sequestration is a bad policy,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday. “It’s certainly been bad for our economy, and it’s bad for our national security as well, and that’s why the president proposes to end it.”

Though Republicans are eager to see the Pentagon fully funded, the prospect of lifting the spending caps runs up against another core GOP tenet — limiting government spending. An internal struggle centers on that split between defense and deficit hawks.

“There’s debate going on,” said Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho). “It’s been a standoff, as you know. I have not seen either side running up the white flag.”

The president is asking lawmakers for $561 billion in defense spending, an increase of $38 billion over the congressionally mandated budget caps, which includes the Pentagon’s largest base-line budget request ever. On top of that, the military is set to receive $51 billion in war funding.

Obama’s plan also includes $530 billion in domestic expenditures, an increase of $37 billion over this fiscal year.

Congress’ new Republican majority could be interested in repealing the spending limits, especially on national security. But few Republicans are willing to stomach Obama's proposed tax increases to pay for his expanded budget.

“Until he gets serious about our long-term spending problem, it's hard to take him seriously,” said Cory Fritz, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

Republicans prefer shifting the money around — aiding the Pentagon by cutting into the vast system of domestic programs they say is bloated. In the past, Republicans have suggested cuts to food stamps, Obamacare and programs to help homeowners who owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth, among others.

“The House of Representatives has passed several replacements for the president’s sequester, only to have them ignored,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the Republican head of the House Armed Services Committee.

Obama’s new plan is unlikely to gain traction, budget analysts say.

“The president is facing an exceedingly difficult situation in Congress,” said Ryan Crotty, the deputy director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It can’t try to increase spending and be everything to everyone. Because, in the end, no one’s going to be happy.”

Still, Obama faces a deadline to ward off the worst of the cuts.

When Obama and Congress initially agreed to slash spending, neither really thought it would happen. The cuts were considered so terrible — $1 trillion worth of deep reductions over the decade, across almost every aspect of government — that they would force the parties to broker a compromise.

But they went into effect after Congress failed to reach a deal.

Their full brunt never really took hold, however. A subsequent pact brokered in 2013 between Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) temporarily undid some of the reductions.

That reprieve ends Oct. 1, when the new fiscal year begins. Without agreement by then, Washington could see another major confrontation between the White House and Capitol Hill.

“If Congress rejects my plan and refuses to undo these arbitrary cuts, it will threaten our economy and our military,” Obama wrote in an op-ed in the Huffington Post.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said how the budget plays out would depend on the debate within the Republican caucus over whether to relent on spending in order to support the military.

“Two years ago, there was a recognition among most Republicans that the defense caps should be readjusted, and the result of that was the Ryan-Murray agreement,” he said. “So I would hope that we can move forward on some kind of similar agreement.”

To warn against the negative effects of cuts, top uniformed officers of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps testified Wednesday on Capitol Hill about how their services would be devastated.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, as they’re known, said that the spending freeze affected the military’s ability to be ready for battle and slowed the modernization of weapons, which made it impossible to plan.

The last year saw a number of unforeseen national security threats, they said, including the battle against Islamic State, a resurgent Russia in Ukraine and other events that demanded military action such as the spread of Ebola in Africa.

“Sequestration will erode the trust that our young men and women in uniform, civil servants and families have in their leadership,” said Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., commandant of the Marines. “And the cost of losing that trust is incalculable.”

In a study released in April, the Pentagon outlined the impact of spending cuts, including a reduction in the number of active-duty soldiers in the Army from 470,000 to 420,000. Other effects include the retirement of a Navy aircraft carrier and scrapping the tankers that refuel fighter and bomber jets in midair.

Obama’s open-ended strategy to confront Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria has cost $1.3 billion since it began in August, according to the Pentagon. Although that’s a pittance compared with the total Pentagon budget, or the separate $1.3 trillion spent for the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the costs of intervention are certain to increase under the plan to step up airstrikes, intensify surveillance and conduct counter-terrorism operations.

Despite the budget uncertainty, the Pentagon has moved forward with big-ticket purchases that stretch for decades, including a $348-billion nuclear weapons modernization effort that involves new bombers and submarines, as well as the $400-billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet program.

“The Department of Defense has not prepared the services or the contractors for any budget cuts,” said Todd Harrison, defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “They seem to be in denial about the whole thing.”

william.hennigan@latimes.com

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

Times staff writers Kathleen Hennessey in Washington and Michael A. Memoli in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

4:52 p.m.: The story was updated throughout with new details.

The story was originally published at 11:47 a.m.

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