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Lawmakers Expect Changes to Proposed Benefit Cuts

Two powerful Congressmen predicted Wednesday that Congress will make major changes the Pentagon's proposed budget, particularly on the cuts to pay and benefits, while maintaining the spending cap at about $496 billion.

"The budget is always the starting point, not the ending point," said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House Seapower Subcommittee.

Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, agreed saying to expect intense push back from Congress on any pay and benefits cuts similar to how a proposed cost-of-living-allowance reduction for retirees was repealed.

"I don't think it's a matter of taking the budget as is," Smith said. "We can make different sets of decisions. That's our job," Smith said.

However, both said they don't expect the military to receive more money with the spending cap remaining at $496 billion.

"There is no concrete idea out there right now to put more money in the defense budget," said Smith, who added that he expected major battles in the House and Senate over changes within the $496 billion cap.

Both Congressmen said they expect to witness intense debate over the increase to Tricare co-pays as well as the proposal to decrease benefits such as asking troops to pay 5 percent of the Base Allowance for Housing pay. 

"I think they're going to be brutally tough," Smith said of the upcoming faceoffs over pay and benefits.

Forbes said to anticipate similar debate on Capitol Hill over some of the weapons reduction proposals on platforms such as the Littoral Combat Ship and half the Navy cruiser fleet.

However, Congress will likely go along with the Pentagon plan to cap the number of Littoral Combat Ships at 32 and scrap the proposal to take 11 cruisers out of the fleet, the two House leaders said Wednesday.

"You've got a lot of people who hate the LCS [on Capitol Hill]," said Forbes said. "[But] one of the things we want to do is give the Navy a fair shake [on the LCS]." 

Opponents of the LCS would have to be satisfied with the proposal from Hagel to cut the LCS program from 52 to 32 ships, Smith said. He agreed with Forbes that many on the Hill would like to kill the LCS program but "that is not the consensus opinion in Congress."

Forbes was adamant in opposing Hagel's plan to take 11 of the Navy’s 22 cruisers out of the fleet for modernization to save money to maintain 11 aircraft carriers.

"When you start taking these 11 cruisers out, that's very concerning to me," Forbes said. To get Congress to go along, "they've got to make a better case than what I've seen already," Forbes said.

Smith said the Pentagon's budget proposal gave Congress a "series of unimaginable choices" on what to fund and what to cut on personnel, weapons systems and readiness.

Forbes said he was intent on keeping 11 carriers for the Navy to deal with emerging threats worldwide. 

"It is absolutely ludicrous for us to think about going own to 10 carriers in a 15-carrier world," Forbes said.

Both Forbes and Smith said they expected the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program to go forward despite persistent cost overrun and development problems.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@monster.com.

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