Trump’s Defense Topline Faces a Big Hurdle, Just as When Obama Proposed It

President Donald J. Trump departs from the Pentagon alongside Secretary of Defense James Mattis on Jan. 27, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr

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President Donald J. Trump departs from the Pentagon alongside Secretary of Defense James Mattis on Jan. 27, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

The new administration’s proposal to give the Defense Department $603 billion in 2018 exceeds legal limits by about 10 percent.

President Donald Trump has proposed to return Pentagon spending to levels originally proposed by then-President Barack Obama in 2013.

The move has drawn fire from Republicans who say it doesn’t increase defense spending enough and Democrats who decry the cuts it entails for the rest of the federal government.

The proposal was revealed in the top-level spending targets sent by Trump’s Office of Management and Budget to federal departments on Monday. The Pentagon’s share of Trump’s 2018 budget plan is $603 billion, according to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.

The figure happens to be near the same amount envisioned for 2018 in a multiyear spending plan approved by the last administration. But Obama’s plan ran afoul of the caps imposed by the Budget Control Act, or BCA. That’s also a problem for Trump, who is proposing to spend $54 billion more, or about 10 percent, than the $549 billion cap allows.

In order to boost defense spending, Congress must repeal the limits — sometimes called sequestration — imposed by the BCA. But finding enough common ground to permit a repeal has proved impossible, despite years of complaints from White House officials, Pentagon leaders, and lawmakers themselves. Democrats argue that any plus-up for defense should be accompanied by increases for other parts of the government; Republicans balk at this.

Congress has yet even to pass a budget for the current fiscal year, forcing the Pentagon to continue operating at 2016 spending levels. Defense Department officials have said this hurts readiness and its ability to properly prepare troops for high-end combat.

Now Trump is proposing to fund the Pentagon’s gain by cutting funding for other government agencies and foreign aid, an Office of Management and Budget official said Monday.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, backs the proposed spending increase for the Pentagon — but wants it to be even higher. McCain himself has proposed a $640 billion defense budget.

“President Trump intends to submit a defense budget that is a mere 3 percent above President Obama’s defense budget, which has left our military underfunded, undersized, and unready to confront threats to our national security,” McCain said.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who leads the House Armed Services Committee, offered his own statement: “Over the course of the Obama Administration, our military funding was cut 20 percent while the world grew more dangerous. While we cannot repair all of the damage done by those cuts in a single year, we can and should do more than this level of funding will allow.”

But Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, the chairman of HASC’s Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee, called Trump’s proposal “Fake Budgeting.”

Last year, the Pentagon requested $524 billion for 2017, a figure that does not include funding for wars and other unexpected operational expenses. It also requested $64.6 billion for stepped-up operations in Europe and war operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. OMB officials have not said how much, if any, Trump plans to request for Overseas Contingency Operations funding in 2018. Mulvaney, a former congressman, has been a critic of the war budget, which is not restricted by spending caps.

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