Battle Lines Drawn in Congressional Debate over Cutting -- or Increasing -- $842 Billion Pentagon Budget

Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy in Romania.
Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy -- who was House Minority Leader at the time the photo was taken -- holds a Carl Gustaf recoilless rifle during a congressional delegation visit, Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania, April 11, 2022. (U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Thurnapuf Valle)

The debate in Congress over whether to continue a pattern of infusing billions of dollars more into the military than the Pentagon asked for or taking a scalpel to the budget for the first time in years is heating up with the release of President Joe Biden's fiscal 2024 budget proposal.

Failure to come to an agreement on funding the Pentagon and the rest of the federal government could mean a government shutdown or a U.S. default on its debts later this year, both of which have the potential to disrupt service members' pay and benefits. And what level of defense funding Congress ultimately settles on could affect everything from U.S. preparations to compete with China to whether the military can replace moldy, crumbling barracks.

The White House on Thursday revealed it is seeking $842 billion for the Pentagon next year. That's a $26 billion, or 3.2%, increase above the amount Congress approved for the department this year.

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The Pentagon is expected to provide more details next week about exactly where the money would be spent, but White House budget documents said the proposal generally "prioritizes the care of service members" -- including giving troops a 5.2% basic pay raise; "strengthens" sexual assault prevention programs and military justice reforms; and "fulfills America's commitment to military families," among other priorities.

Even with few details about the military's exact spending plans publicly released, lawmakers are already digging in for what is expected to be months of debate over what Congress ultimately approves to fund the government.

"It is obvious that the budget does not take national security seriously," Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told on Thursday. "It is also readily apparent that they're expecting the committee to do their work for them. Which we will try to do."

The last two years, lawmakers in both parties have supported going above what Biden requested for the Pentagon. For the fiscal 2023 Pentagon budget, Congress added $45 billion more than requested, after adding $29 billion the previous year.

But any efforts to add more money to the request this year are expected to crash into House Republican vows to slash overall government funding to 2022 levels.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., made the promise to slash government spending as part of a deal to secure votes from his far-right critics to become speaker. While some Republicans have insisted the defense budget will be safe and that $130 billion will be cut solely from nondefense spending, McCarthy told Fox News in January that "wokeism" in the Pentagon budget is on the table for cuts.

Republicans apply the term "woke" to a broad range of Biden administration policies they disagree with, but often use it to refer to efforts to make the military more welcoming to historically marginalized groups. Such programs typically cost no more than a rounding error in the Pentagon's budget. For example, in 2021, the military spent about $1 million on GOP-maligned efforts to root out extremism from the ranks, foster a diverse military, and prepare for the national security challenges of climate change.

This year's debate over funding the government is tied into an impending deadline to lift what's known as the debt ceiling, which is the amount of money the Treasury Department can borrow in order to pay for spending Congress has already approved through the annual appropriations process. The Treasury, which started using "extraordinary measures" in January to stave off a crisis, has estimated it will exhaust those emergency powers sometime between July and September, risking an unprecedented default if Congress does not lift the ceiling.

Republicans have said they won't vote to lift the debt limit unless Biden and congressional Democrats agree to spending cuts.

On Friday, the House Freedom Caucus, which demonstrated its power to grind Congress to a halt during the McCarthy speakership fight, vowed to withhold votes to lift the debt ceiling unless they can secure about $130 billion in cuts.

While Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry, R-Pa., said defense spending "can remain flat" while other departments take deep cuts, caucus members also suggested that Pentagon funding is not immune from their demands.

"You can return to pre-COVID levels for the federal bureaucracy, for the nondefense, and then you can have defense spending wherever you want it," Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, said at a Freedom Caucus news conference Friday. "But let's be clear, there's a lot to cut over at the Pentagon. There's a lot of things that need to change over at the Pentagon and, look, a lot of Republicans agree with that. We need more lethality and less wokeness at the Pentagon."

House Republicans are expected to release their formal counterproposal to Biden's budget plan later this spring, though House Budget Committee Chairman Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, last month previewed some cuts he is eyeing. Arrington did not single out any Pentagon funding, but he proposed eliminating what he called "woke-waste," such as $3.6 million Congress approved last year to help expand a nature trail in Georgia named after former first lady Michelle Obama.

Wicker downplayed House GOP talk of Pentagon cuts, saying there is only a "small faction that doesn't understand that the current budget is totally inadequate."

Even a flat defense budget would be at odds with the position of GOP defense hawks, who have long argued for annual increases for the Pentagon of 3% to 5% above inflation.

Those defense hawks immediately slammed the Biden administration's $842 billion proposal as insufficient in the face of threats from China and Russia. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said in a statement that the president's request "fails to take these threats seriously." In his own statement, Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., who leads the House Appropriations Committee subpanel in charge of Pentagon spending, called the proposal "not serious about the threats and challenges we face."

Senate Democrats, while less critical of Biden, are also signaling they will back another increase in Pentagon spending, as they have the last couple years. At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing at the beginning of the week before the budget was released, Sen. Richard Blumental, D-Conn., said he was "adding an exclamation point" to GOP comments at the hearing "about the need for ample resources devoted to our national defense."

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., called Biden's request a "useful starting point."

"Some will inevitably say the topline is too much, while others will claim it is not enough," Reed said in a statement Thursday. "I say America's defense budget should be guided by our values, needs and national security strategy."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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