Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan took the case for a $750 billion defense budget to the Senate on Thursday, amid charges that the White House proposal is rife with spending "gimmicks" and controversial plans to build the southern border wall.
The hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee might be an audition for Shanahan to get President Donald Trump's nomination as the permanent successor to former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who resigned the day after Trump announced the Syria withdrawal in December.
"The president has a great deal of respect for Acting Defense Secretary Shanahan," White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said at a briefing Monday after the budget rollout. "He likes him and, when the president is ready to make an announcement on that front, he certainly will."
In his opening remarks at the hearing, Shanahan, a former long-time Boeing executive with no military background, said that the "undisputed driver" of the budget proposal is the need to counter Russia and China.
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However, he was immediately challenged from both sides of the aisle on the huge increase in the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, the diversion of military construction projects to fund the border wall, and the retirement of the carrier Harry S. Truman.
Hours after the hearing, the Senate voted 59-41 to void Trump's proclamation of a national emergency at the border with a "motion of disapproval" that had already passed the house.
The vote sets up a new scuffle with the White House; Trump has already threatened to veto the motion.
The administration suffered another setback Wednesday in the 54-46 Senate vote to end U.S. military assistance to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in the war in Yemen.
"Every line of our FY2020 request is designed to implement" the National Defense Strategy of 2018 that focused on "near-peer competitors" such as Russia and China, Shanahan said in his prepared remarks. "Therefore, every dollar of it -- both in baseline funding and Overseas Contingency Operations -- is critical."
The fiscal 2020 budget request includes $164 billion for OCO, sometimes called the "war budget" for funding the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. OCO funding in fiscal 2019 was $69 billion. The account is not subject to the spending caps of the Budget Control Act of 2011.
In his testimony, Shanahan said the overall budget request reflects "difficult but necessary choices," while acknowledging that $98 billion of the $164 billion in the OCO request is not related to current conflicts.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, the ranking member on the committee, said that what Shanahan is proposing amounts to "an egregious misuse of the OCO account." He said that "overloading" the OCO account by $98 billion "far exceeds any precedent and cannot be justified."
Shanahan also was repeatedly challenged on the diversion of as much as $6.2 billion from military construction projects to the border wall.
Shanahan said he had yet to receive a list of wall construction projects from the Department of Homeland Security and repeated previous assurances that none of the military construction projects that might be diverted or delayed would include military housing.
After being pressed by Reed, Shanahan agreed to deliver a state-by-state list of the military construction projects that might be affected to the committee later Thursday.
As with past budgets, the $750 billion defense budget proposal recommended by the White House and endorsed by the Pentagon will be debated and reshaped with major additions and subtractions by Congress, but the planned 3.1 percent pay raise for troops and retirees is almost certain to stay untouched going into an election year.
The $750 billion for defense, part of Trump's overall $4.5 trillion budget proposal for fiscal 2020, which begins Oct. 1, includes $718 billion for the military and $32 billion for Department of Energy spending on nuclear weapons. The budget proposal is a $34 billion increase over the $716 billion in fiscal 2019.
Shanahan was joined at the hearing by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford and Pentagon Comptroller David Norquist, who has also been serving as acting deputy defense secretary since Mattis' resignation.
At the hearing's outset, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, the committee's chairman, questioned the plan to scrap the mid-life nuclear refueling of the carrier Truman and retire the ship.
"I'm still not happy with the results of that," Inhofe said.
In his prepared remarks, Shanahan said, "China's organized approach to stealing foreign technology has allowed China to modernize its missile, space and cyber capabilities, as well as project power far beyond its borders."
Russia, for its part, "continues to compete asymmetrically with the United States, modernizing and developing its own missile, space and cyber capabilities," Shanahan said.
But the lawmakers repeatedly drew him back to the use of military construction funds to pay for the border wall.
Trump originally demanded $5.7 billion for the wall but Congress, with Democrats now in control of the House, refused to come up with more than $1.375 billion for border security. The impasse led to the 35-day partial government shutdown.
The president then issued an executive order declaring a national emergency at the border to seek more than $8 billion for the wall, partly from $3.6 billion in military construction projects already authorized and appropriated by Congress in the fiscal 2019 budget.
In the proposal for the fiscal 2020 budget, the White House also requested a $9.2 billion emergency fund, which would go partly to hurricane damage at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, but would also include another $3.6 billion in deferred or delayed military construction projects for the border wall that Trump originally said would be paid for by Mexico.
Shanahan pledged, "Military construction on the border will not come at the expense of our people, our readiness, or our modernization."
He was challenged, however by several Democratic senators.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, called the wall a Trump "vanity project" and asked Shanahan whether he agreed with Air Force Gen. Terrence O'Shaughnessy, commander of U.S. Northern Command, that the flood of asylum seekers at the southern border does not pose a military threat.
"I agree with him," Shanahan said.
Dunford added, "It's a security challenge, not a military threat."
Shanahan said he sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security last month asking for a list of wall projects that the military could be expected to support. He said he expected a reply this week.
Reed told Shanahan that for "an emergency, this seems to be a pretty casual approach to the issue."
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, questioned Shanahan on whether he has given any assurances to senators that military construction projects in their states would not be affected by funding for the border wall.
Shanahan said he had not, but then Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, said she had received assurances that four projects in Arizona would not be touched.
King interjected: "How does that square with what he just told me?"
There was no response from Shanahan.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.