How the White House and Congress Plan To Boost Defense: Ignore Sequestration

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, center, and other House Republicans emerge from a closed-door meeting in the basement of the Capitol, on Feb. 26, 2015.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, center, and other House Republicans emerge from a closed-door meeting in the basement of the Capitol, on Feb. 26, 2015.

Washington is really planning to avoid dealing with the budget caps, and boost defense spending anyway.

The House and the Senate may have found a sweet spot for their budget strategies: they’re both planning on using the U.S. war chest to give the Pentagon the money the White House requested for defense, but outside the reach of sequestration’s spending caps.

The White House hoped to force Congress to cancel sequestration by recommending $561 billion in base funding for national defense for fiscal 2016 — an extra $38 billion above the $523 billion cap put in place by the Budget Control Act. Congress is simply accounting for the $38 billion boost in the separate war chest known as Overseas Contingency Operations funding, or OCO, which isn’t restricted by the cap.

The House and Senate non-binding budget resolutions allocate a base defense budget that sticks to the $523 billion cap, which at first seems a victory for the fiscal hawk wing of the Republican Party. The Senate Budget Committee initially put $58 billion into OCO as well, matching the White House ask for the war fund. But on Thursday, the Senate committee passed an amendment by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that would add the $38 billion difference to OCO, to total up to $96 billion. The strategy essentially follows the House Budget Committee’s resolution, which originally budgeted $523 billion for defense but provided $94 billion for OCO — a “gimmick,” as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called it Tuesday.

All of the proposed budgets grant roughly $617 billion to $619 billion for defense spending.

“This Congress can and should do better than use Overseas Contingency Operations funds to address this crisis of our own making,” McCain said on Wednesday. “However, I refuse to ask the brave young Americans in our military to defend this nation with insufficient resources … Using OCO to prevent this scenario is not my preference, but it is infinitely better than the current defense spending caps, and it could help to avert a looming disaster.”

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