A GOP-Pentagon Clash Looms Over Spending

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House Speaker John Boehner and Defense Secretary Robert Gates / DoD photo

There’s a game of chicken now under way in Congress — and the Pentagon is caught in the middle. House Republicans, eager to show they’re serious about cutting spending, are talking about a series of so-called “continuing resolutions” that will basically freeze government funding at 2010 levels unless Senate Democrats agree to deeper cuts in the planned 2011 budget.

That turns long-time allies — pro-defense Republicans and their mil-mates at the Pentagon — into fiscal foes. That’s because Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made it clear that he can’t run his shop in 2011 on 2010’s budget. “That means there’s no funds for the pay raise, for any increase in fuel prices, no money to pay for increases in health care costs,” Gates complained to Congress on Wednesday. But the two-week funding bill just signed by President Obama, which includes a $4 billion spending cut, means he’s going to have to keep doing that. Additional such stopgap measures are likely deeper into 2011 that could force the Defense Department to halt weapons production and lay off workers.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio didn’t apologize for the stopgap measure after it passed both houses, and suggested its short-term nature is needed to prod the Senate into action. “The American people want us to focus on creating jobs and cutting spending, and passage of this short-term spending bill I think shows that we’re listening to the American people,” the Republican leader said. “If you give Congress four weeks, guess what? They’ll take four weeks. If you give them six weeks, they’ll take six weeks. We’ve got two weeks. Let’s get the job done.” House Republicans are proposing $61 billion in cuts to the 2011 budget that Senate Democrats oppose.

Gates’ $549 billion budget request for 2011 would be cut by $23 billion — 4 percent — if the military is forced to operate at 2010 levels, he told a House panel Wednesday. “Cuts in maintenance could force parts of our aircraft fleet to be grounded and delay deep-needed facilities improvements,” he warned. “Cuts in operations would mean fewer flying hours, fewer steaming days, and cutbacks in training for home-stationed forces, all of which directly impacts readiness.” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said this week that 10,000 jobs in Navy plants and facilities are at risk because of the depressed funding level, and jeopardizing work slated to begin soon on one submarine and a pair of destroyers. Michael McCord, a deputy Pentagon comptroller, told a gathering that 75 military-construction contracts have been put on hold.

Colleague Jay Newton-Small reports from her lofty perch on Capitol Hill that GOP leaders say their intention is to pass a longer-term funding measure as soon as possible. “It is certainly not our intention that [two-week extensions] would be the best way to operate,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told reporters. “The House has taken action. We have made our position known as to where we think this country ought to go for this fiscal year, for the remainder of it. The Senate has done nothing.”

Senate Democratic leaders have been grumbling that two weeks is not a reasonable about of time to work out an agreement when the two sides are $61 billion apart. Aides in both chambers acknowledge that at least one, if not several, stopgap extensions will likely be needed. “It’s obvious that we would want more than two weeks to do this,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters Tuesday. “We’ve made a number of suggestions to the Speaker over the past several weeks that it would be better to have a longer period of time and they’ve rejected all of them.”

By tackling the issue in smaller bites, Boehner wins street cred with his freshmen hungry for cuts while looking like the bipartisan adult in the room working to stave off a government shut down. Reid can hardly shut down the government over $4 billion in cuts — Democrats would be blamed. The political temptation to keep funding the government this way is strong as it keeps Republicans in the driver’s seat. The Pentagon is simply bouncing along in the rumble seat.

Of course if Gates complains to Boehner over the spending impasse, the speaker could explain to him that the biggest threat facing the nation isn’t al Qaeda, the Taliban or China. “I think,” Boehner might tell Gates, “the single-biggest threat to our national security is our debt.” And he could point out those aren’t his words, but come from Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. It’s Mullen’s job, as chief military adviser to the President, to monitor and rank the threats facing the U.S.