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GOP’s Defense Plans Are at War With Budget Goals

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Congressional Republicans are running into a potentially serious snag in their bid to increase military spending and revamp the Clinton Administration’s defense priorities: the pledge in the “contract with America” to cut taxes and balance the federal budget.

After a week of preliminary wrangling, leading GOP lawmakers conceded that they will need some more time--possibly even several weeks--to resolve the apparent conflict.

“It’s going to be tough, no doubt about it,” said Rep. Floyd Spence (R-S.C.), chairman of the House National Security Committee (formerly called the House Armed Services Committee).

There is no dearth of GOP enthusiasm for boosting defense spending. Although the House Republicans’ contract did not specify a figure, some plans call for increasing the Pentagon budget $6 billion to $15 billion over the $246 billion that President Clinton appears ready to propose for 1996.

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In an opening salvo Thursday, Spence and Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.), chairman of the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, sent a joint letter to House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) serving notice that they plan to seek a substantial increase.

Although their proposals still are not finished, congressional strategists said Spence and Young are considering plans that would add between $90 billion and $125 billion to military spending over the next five years. Spending under the plan for fiscal 1996 is still uncertain.

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Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee sent a similar letter Wednesday to Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), calling for an increase of $12.5 billion over Clinton’s expected 1996 defense budget.

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The Republicans also want to revamp Clinton’s defense program to provide more for readiness and modernization, to speed development of new antimissile weapons and to close a perceived “funding gap” in the amount needed to maintain a force that can fight two wars at once.

But the effort has been stalled as the “defense hawks"--those favoring more military spending--have run into equally determined GOP “deficit hawks” and tax-cut advocates who believe that their own goals should take priority.

The House and Senate budget committees are having difficulty juggling the two positions.

Kasich initially said that while his plan would allot more for defense, it would have to place the Pentagon budget “under a microscope.” He has also voiced doubt about any big increase in funding.

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At the same time, the push to pass a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution--an early priority of House leaders--has stymied work on the budget as lawmakers try to assess the impact of such an amendment on the 1996 spending plan.

Although the amendment probably would not take effect for years, it could force spending cuts almost immediately. That means lawmakers will have to deal with the amendment before they can begin work on the budget.

Other GOP defense proposals also are running into trouble. Among them is a far-reaching plan to transfer to other agencies some $12 billion for such “non-defense” programs as cleaning up the environment around military bases awaiting closure.

Lawmakers working on the budget are becoming skeptical about proposals to allow the Pentagon to keep any savings in its budget that might result from transfer of those programs.

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Resistance also appears to be growing to plans to restore budget “fire walls” erected in past years to prevent lawmakers from raiding the defense budget for money to finance domestic programs.

As a result, analysts said there is growing doubt that Republicans can push through anything more than a token Pentagon budget increase for fiscal 1996, which begins next Oct. 1.

“From what I see, there isn’t going to be a consensus to emerge that says we ought to increase defense spending sharply,” said Andrew F. Krepinevich, director of the Defense Budget Project, a nonpartisan defense-monitoring group.

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There is no small irony in the situation. For years, defense-minded Republicans have sought to slow the decline in military spending, which began in the mid-1980s. But the Democratic-run Congress, encouraged by the end of the Cold War, continued making cuts in the Pentagon budget.

With Republican leaders finally in control of both houses, and with recent worries about the nation’s military readiness creating political momentum to reverse the decline, the GOP appeared poised to boost defense spending.

But their thunder was muted by two developments:

First, Clinton, seeking to preempt the GOP following disclosures indicating that military preparedness was slipping, announced plans to increase his own military budget by $25 billion over six years, adding $2 billion to the fiscal 1996 total that he had previously budgeted.

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Second, the Republican takeover of Congress forced party leaders to deal with the conflict between defense-spending and deficit-reduction pledges--a clash that they had been able to avoid when the GOP was out of power.

It still is not clear just how the defense effort will fare in the face of such pressures. Kasich, Spence and Young have been meeting regularly in an effort to reach a compromise, and Spence’s panel is expected to float its own plan soon.

Republicans also are worried about a gap between the kind of defense force the Administration has planned for the next five years and the amount of money it has allocated to pay for troops and equipment.

Despite the increase Clinton proposed, the Congressional Budget Office reiterated Thursday that his budget will end up $47 billion below the amount needed to finance his defense program fully over a six-year period. The General Accounting Office has estimated that gap at $150 billion.

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But all sides agree that even after the leaders in each House agree on a strategy, they will need at least several weeks to lay the groundwork among rank-and-file Republicans for a compromise involving the defense and the deficit-reduction issues to pass.

Spence, for one, said he hopes that the defense hawks will be able to fulfill their goals of limiting the defense cuts that the Administration has proposed, at least during the next two fiscal years. “We’re trying to stop the hemorrhaging,” he said.


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