WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Wednesday that the president would veto the proposed House defense budget that uses an emergency war fund to skirt defense spending limits.
Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey each testified to the House Armed Services Committee that long-term military planning would be hamstrung by the budget unveiled this week, which puts $94 billion into the Overseas Contingency Operations fund while maintaining a $523 billion cap on the base budget.
The proposal came from fiscal conservatives on the House Budget Committee and has set up a showdown with defense hawks in both chambers of Congress who have been pushing for a cap-busting $577 billion base defense budget and $51 billion for overseas war efforts.
Carter waded into the debate Wednesday, saying President Barack Obama made it clear that he would veto any budget plan that keeps the sequester and hamstrings the military in its multi-year planning.
The House proposal to tap OCO "doesn't work, because to have the defense we need and the strategy we have laid out, we need the budget we have laid out not just this year but for the years to come," Carter said. "It is not going to permit us to carry out the strategy as we have planned."
Dempsey said the military has a five-year strategy that it hopes will be funded by a budget without the sequestration cap. Congress tied its hands with the mandatory sequester caps to force a wide-ranging political agreement on reducing federal spending and debt, though no "grand bargain" has materialized.
"We won't have the certainty over that period if the current [House Budget Committee] strategy is followed," Dempsey said. "Frankly, it does not do for defense what we should be doing in a predictable fashion."
Top Army and Air Force officials gave similar testimony Tuesday, saying the OCO money is emergency funding that cannot be used in the same ways as base funding, and using it for a large portion of the Pentagon's daily needs would cause planning problems.
Both Carter and Dempsey have spent days on Capitol Hill testifying that the impending cap on the Defense Department budget would cause a crisis for the services just as they are stretched thin by global war and unrest.
The testimony Wednesday to the HASC could be key because the committee crafts the annual defense authorization bill and it recently recommended the larger $577 billion base budget.
Mike Turner, R-Ohio, a member of the HASC, pressed Carter and Dempsey to weigh in and tell Congress of the problems with relying on an emergency war fund for regular defense needs.
"I have told the [House] budget committee that making that up with OCO does not work," Turner said.
Republicans have considered another way to solve the pain from sequester caps — remove the spending limits only for defense.
Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., criticized Carter after the defense secretary said he would support an Obama veto of any federal budget from Congress that does not repeal the sequester caps "across the board" for all agencies including the DOD.
Forbes said the defense secretary does not speak for the other federal agencies and should testify to the HASC as a defense expert who backs the military.
"We need to make sure, Mr. Secretary ... that we are dealing with the crisis we have in national defense," he said.