House lawmakers from both parties voted Thursday for a $601 billion defense budget that amounts to a wholesale rejection of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's proposed Pentagon budget, setting up what will likely be months of heated sparring over military benefits and the future of an array of big-ticket weapons programs.
The House budget bill would provide $496 for the Defense Department's baseline budget, another $79 billion for Afghanistan and other war operations and another $18 billion for energy programs, but the 325-98 vote restores funding to a number of programs, for the A-10 Warthog close air support plane, for example, and the U-2 spy plane that first began flying during the Cold War. It also provides more funding for troop pay, housing, healthcare and other programs that the Pentagon had sought, under its own proposal, to reduce. The House version of the budget passed Thursday also restored funding for the Navy's Ticonderoga-class cruisers and other programs the Pentagon said it didn't need.
House lawmakers took pains to say that they weren't acting out of self-interest to protect programs that provide jobs in their states but were instead voting to protect the troops.
"Some have characterized the [fiscal year 2015 defense budget] as a sop to parochial interests," Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement after the vote. "That is a lazy dismissal of a long, arduous process that still leaves many holes in our defense and few good choices."
Although the budget bill the House passed meets Congressionally-mandated budget caps, it requires the Pentagon to fund certain programs that it had planned to cut. As a result, the Pentagon will now have to find additional savings, perhaps in acquisition and other troop "readiness" programs, to keep the baseline budget at the $496 billion limit. Top generals routinely warn that such cuts could leave the military ill-prepared to fight an unexpected conflict in a place like Yemen or Syria.
Thursday's vote is only the beginning of a budget process that won't conclude until this fall at the earliest, and the Senate proposal is not expected to include the same priorities as the House version. But on Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee completed its own markup of the defense budget bill, and, like the House, voted to keep the A-10 flying.
Pentagon officials in recent weeks have said that this is only the opening budgetary salvo in what will be a months-long process.
"The department reiterates its support for the President's budget submission which we believe makes tough decisions regarding readiness and modernization while providing a balanced compensation plan," Cmdr. Bill Urban, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an email.
Earlier this month, Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said that Hagel was "not pleased" with efforts by the House to undo the Pentagon's budget cuts. On Tuesday, Kirby said Hagel "believes that it's important for the ideas and proposals put forward by the Defense Department in the president's budget be subject to a full and vigorous debate." The defense chief, Kirby added, "also knows that this debate is just now beginning."
House lawmakers have chided the administration for attempting to reduce the size of the military, increase out-of-pocket expenses for military families and "cutting vital programs," as a House Armed Services Committee budget document said. "In developing this proposal, Chairman McKeon, together with members from both parties, worked hard to find savings in less critical areas that do not pose the threat of irrevocable damage to the force or the potential to harm recruiting or retention. Still, at current resource levels tough choices must be made," according to the document.
Animated by a list of "unfunded requirements" that were submitted by the chiefs of each of the services - disallowed by previous defense secretaries but allowed this year by Hagel - House lawmakers restored funding to a number of other smaller programs the Pentagon proposal had cut. The House measure passed Thursday put back $76 million for the Stryker vehicle, for example, and another $120 million for Abrams tank upgrades. The House also voted against the Pentagon's plan to reduce excess military infrastructure by closing bases it says it doesn't need or can't afford to maintain.
Despite the end of the wars in Iraq and, soon, Afghanistan, as well as the administration's argument that defense spending should go down, House lawmakers have touted the need to increase defense spending, specifically for acquisition and readiness - money spent on troops and training.
But outside budget analysts believe House lawmakers are short-sighted and are effectively "handcuffing the Pentagon," as the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments Todd Harrison told Foreign Policy recently.
Hagel has said repeatedly that if the Pentagon continues on its current spending course without making adjustments the choices it will face will "only grow more difficult and more painful down the road," as Hagel said Feb. 24 when he previewed the Pentagon's budget proposal. "We will inevitably have to either cut into compensation even more deeply and abruptly or we will have to deprive our men and women of the training and equipment they need to succeed in battle."