Defense budget counts on cuts Congress rejected


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WASHINGTON (AP) - Call it the wishing and hoping defense budget.

President Barack Obama's 2014 blueprint assumes that Washington reverses the automatic budget cuts that have become a daily reality for the military and counts on Congress suddenly embracing the domestic base closings, increased health care fees and weapons terminations that lawmakers resoundingly rejected in recent years.

The proposal unveiled Wednesday calls for a base Pentagon budget of $526.6 billion _ $52 billion more than the $475 billion level established by the across-the-board spending cuts set in the budget agreement between Obama and congressional Republicans in August 2011. Fiscal conservatives have accepted the cuts as a surefire way to reduce the trillion-plus federal deficit and shown no inclination to abandon them despite the outcry of defense hawks and senior Pentagon officials, who fear an erosion of U.S. military might.

The budget plan includes a $88.5 billion placeholder for additional war costs in Afghanistan as Obama decides on the pace of the drawdown of American combat troops next year and the eventual size of the residual force after December 2014. The Obama administration likely will submit a war cost request in late April or early May.

"We are living in a world of complete uncertainty," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters at a Pentagon briefing in which he acknowledged that the so-called sequestration of automatic cuts is the law, but argued that Washington has to "get beyond that and hopefully get a budget resolution that will allow us new flexibility."

Or as Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said this week "sequester is an artificial, self-inflicted political problem, not a structural problem. Hopefully, the turmoil and gridlock will end and the U.S. can get back to normal budgeting."

Obama's budget reflects the end of more than a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan and the military's strategic pivot to Asia as a nuclear North Korea increases its belligerence and China builds up its forces. After years of robust budgets, the Pentagon faces projected spending reductions totaling $487 billion over 10 years, plus tens of billions more from the automatic cuts, including $41 billion that kicked in March 1.

Instead of the across-the-board cuts of some $500 billion over 10 years, the administration is proposing $150 billion in additional defense savings over a decade though Hagel said the reductions won't occur until "beyond fiscal 2018."

The reductions, however, can't alter one reality: The United States spends more on defense than the next 16 largest militaries in the world combined.

"This statistic is true and won't change much in coming years," Carter said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's also worth noting that most of the rest of the money that the world spends on defense is spent by countries that are allies and friends of the United States."

That fact combined with the clamor for less federal spending are certain to impact Obama's overall national security spending. Foreign aid represents just 1 percent of the budget yet is a target for cost-cutting lawmakers.

In addition to the military, the president proposed $47.8 billion for the State Department and foreign operations, including $2.1 billion for Iraq, $3.4 billion for Afghanistan and $1.4 billion for Pakistan.

In the past year, lawmakers such as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., have shown their frustration with Pakistan's resolve in fighting terrorism by trying to cut U.S. assistance to Islamabad, a move likely to be repeated.

The foreign aid budget also includes $909 million for investment in clean energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, money that has drawn the ire of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who has challenged State Department spending on environmental work.

Six months after the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, the budget calls for more than $4 billion "to secure overseas personnel and facilities, including sufficient funding for the State Department to increase embassy security construction to $2.2 billion."

U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died in the assault.

Obama also proposed spending $48.2 billion on intelligence gathering. The administration disclosed the topline number, but the remainder of the budget is classified.

The Pentagon plan seeks congressional approval for another round of domestic military base closings, with closure decisions to be made in 2015 and implemented starting a year later. Lawmakers have already signaled that they will oppose base closures; the Pentagon budget chief, Robert Hale, told reporters that he recognizes the reluctance, but "we have to keep asking" because base closures are a long-term key to saving money.

Congress has complained that the initial cost of shuttering installations is too high, despite projected long-term savings. In response, the Pentagon is seeking $2.4 billion over five years to cover the upfront expense.

Hagel called base closings a "comprehensive and fair tool" that gives communities a role in the decision-making process.

Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, said another base closing round is a non-starter, pointing out that even Obama had said additional rounds were unwise.

"From Asia to the Middle East to stateside - our forces are already stretched thin. How much more will the president ask of our military, while simultaneously cutting the resources they need to defend this nation?" Turner said in a statement.

The president's defense proposal also calls for an increase in fees for health care, which now costs around $53 billion a year and represents 10 percent of the budget. Congress, with the backing of veterans groups, has resisted significant changes in the fees for a program that covers nearly 10 million active duty personnel, retirees, reservists and their families.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the cost of the program could reach $65 billion by 2017 and $95 billion by 2030.

The budget also calls for termination of a version of the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft, a move Congress rejected in 2012.


(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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