Defense spending plan puts Rep. Buck McKeon, Leon Panetta at odds

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has criticized a GOP plan, approved by the House on Thursday, to protect the Defense Department from a further $500 billion cut that could happen over the next 10 years should Congress and the president fail to agree on a $1.2 trillion deficit reduction measure. (Mark Wilson/GETTY IMAGES)

Debate has broken out over the nearly $4 billion in increased defense spending that the Republican-led House Armed Services Committee added to the Obama administration request in the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill, pitting the panel’s chairman, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), against Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.

In a letter sent Friday to Panetta, McKeon described as “false,” the defense secretary’s statement to reporters on Thursday that “every dollar that is added [to the defense bill] will have to be offset by cuts in national security.”

McKeon argued that House Republicans “were careful to identify other non-defense budget sources to accommodate the needed” defense increases.

That argument previews what will be an extended fight over defense spending through the presidential campaign and into an expected lame-duck congressional session in December. The first round of that fight will take place next week, when the defense authorization legislation is scheduled to be debated on the House floor.

Panetta has already begun meeting privately with senators in hopes that the Democrat-controlled body will oppose the House increases, some of which affect industries or military bases within their states.

“When Congress restores funds to protect particular constituencies that may not be critical to our national defense capabilities, then they risk upending the kind of careful balance that we’ve worked very hard to achieve,” Panetta said at a news conference this week.

The Obama defense request complies with the bipartisan agreement last year in the Budget Control Act and is the first step toward reducing $487 billion from planned defense spending over the next 10 years. The agreement also called for similar-size cuts in non-defense discretionary spending over that same 10-year period.

Panetta specifically noted that the committee prevented the retirement of “aging ships and aircraft that no longer fit strategic requirements.” If approved by the entire Congress, he said, the GOP spending plan would force him “to look elsewhere for these savings, areas like reducing modernization.”

He also has criticized a House GOP plan, approved by the House on Thursday, to protect the Defense Department from a further $500 billion cut that could happen over the next 10 years should Congress and the president fail to agree on a $1.2 trillion deficit reduction measure.

Under the Republican budget plan, one proposal would keep active three of seven U.S. Navy cruisers that were to be given early retirement. Navy officials told Congress that retiring these ships would free up $4 billion in coming years to meet readiness requirements. Although the ships have 10 or more years of service left, they all would have required millions of dollars in defensive upgrades to remain active.

The committee also voted to block for next year a plan to retire strategic lift aircraft primarily flown by the Air National Guard and Reserves. This proposal, designed to save about $500 million next year, is being reviewed by Panetta after it drew bipartisan opposition from many state units. The House panel, however, passed language that would prevent any such change taking place next year.

Panetta also has criticized the committee’s language that limited changes proposed in Tricare medical fees paid by employed military retirees. McKeon said the action “restates the firmly held sense of Congress that prior service to our nation is a pre-payment of health-care benefits in retirement.”

House Republicans also proposed an additional $100 million for planning and development of a new U.S. missile defense site, “potentially on the East Coast,” that would meet the threat from Iran.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said, “The program of record for ballistic missile defense for the homeland . . . is adequate and sufficient to the task.”

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.



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