A 'Big Fight Coming' over Defense Budget if Dems Sweep Election, Lawmaker Says

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This March 27, 2008, file photo, shows the Pentagon in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
This March 27, 2008, file photo, shows the Pentagon in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee says he opposes proposals by progressive Democrats to cut the Pentagon budget by as much as 20% if that party takes the House, Senate and White House on Election Day.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said he is "open to debate" on the subject of Defense Department funding but favors a flat budget or slight reductions over massive cuts designed to shift money to other federal programs.

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Smith said the Democrats need a strategy that upholds national security to justify any reductions in defense spending.

"It can't just be, 'Well, I'd like to spend the money elsewhere,'" Smith told reporters during a virtual meeting Wednesday. "I want a conversation about what's the strategy, what's the plan, going forward. And yeah, I see a big fight coming."

Under President Donald Trump, the DoD budget has increased by 19%, from $619 billion in fiscal 2017 to $738 billion in fiscal 2020. The proposed fiscal 2021 defense budget, still under deliberation in the House and Senate, is $740.5 billion.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., proposed a bill in June that would have reduced the Pentagon budget by 10% to fund health care, child care services, education and housing programs for Americans living in impoverished communities.

An amendment to the House version of the national defense policy bill proposed by Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., and co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, would have done the same, slicing the fiscal 2021 DoD budget by 10%. The measure was struck down, however, in a 324-93 vote, with 139 Democrats, including Smith, voting against it.

"If the reason that you want a 20% cut in the defense budget is because you see the U.S. military as a fundamentally destabilizing force in the world, then I'm not going to be there," Smith said.

He added, however, that he also doesn't support runaway defense spending.

"I have often been very critical of Republicans in that their defense approach can best be summed up as, 'Whatever we are spending, we need to spend more,'" Smith said.

The Senate and House passed their respective versions of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act in July and are set to work on a compromise. But they have yet to begin deliberations.

Smith said House and Senate Armed Services Committee staff members have discussed the bills, but lawmakers have yet to launch more serious negotiations on the differences between the two. The House version contains a number of personnel and social provisions not mentioned in the Senate bill, and the two chambers disagree on other issues, such as how many F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and submarines to buy and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Germany.

Smith said the bills will not be considered until after the Nov. 3 election, but the "Big Four" -- the chairpersons of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and the House and Senate Appropriations Committees -- are likely to meet next week to discuss them.

"We haven't moved forward as aggressively as I would have liked in terms of having more Big Four conversations. … I think it's a risk to leave as much of it as has been left until after the election, but we're moving forward with plans still to get the bill done by the beginning of December," Smith said.

A major sticking point in both bills are provisions to change the names of nine Army and one National Guard base named for officers who served in the Confederacy. The House version would require the service to change the names within a year after the bill became a law; the Senate version calls for establishing a commission to study the issue before they are changed.

Trump has threatened to veto any bill that contains a measure to change the names.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

Related: Senate Passes $740 Billion Defense Policy Bill With Troop Pay Raise

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