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Can McKeon's right turn save the defense budget?


"The president proposes, but Congress disposes," as House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Buck McKeon once said, quoting a grand old Hill chestnut.

To that end, McKeon and his comrades on the Armed Services Committee this week have been unveiling a very different vision for the near term than the one the Pentagon submitted with its annual budget request earlier this year.

Steep drawdowns? Nope. Smaller fleets? Uh-uh. Idled tank production line? Negative, Ghost Rider.

Moreover, McKeon said in a speech Wednesday evening that he wants to step up support for Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system, as well as field ballistic missile defense interceptors at a site somewhere in the U.S. Plus he warned about the aging nuclear stockpile and the Navy's proposed delay for its Ohio-class submarine replacement.

"We’ll look to restore some of the R&D funding there, to help keep our nuclear triad replacements on time and on schedule," McKeon said. "Remember, our nuclear deterrent is our best defense against nations that want a strategic advantage over the United States."

What's more, McKeon would "eliminate the military health care fees proposed by the administration" and make sure DoD was capable of "upgrading certain sensor and intelligence platforms, investing in capabilities like minesweeping, and procuring certain weapons like powerful bunker busting munitions."

In short, where the Obama administration and Secretary Panetta want DoD to get smaller, McKeon wants it to stay the same or grow. The HASC would keep the Air Force's Block 30 Global Hawks; maintain production at General Dynamics' tank plant in Lima, Ohio; fully fund DoD's requests for V-22s, F-35s, Super Hornets and Growlers; give the Air Force 12 extra Reaper UAVs; and other things.

In some places, McKeon did give an implicit concession that not everything is possible: "The administration plans to retire nine guided missile cruisers before the end of their lifespan," he said. "We hope to save three of those ships, sending them to the docks for modernization instead of mothballing." But -- "The Navy has requested funding in the shipbuilding budget for nine additional destroyers; we’ll authorize them to build 10."

(It's unclear whether that "nine" cruiser number is new or a mistake -- the Navy had said before it only wanted to mothball seven ships. Either way, the earlier line from House Republicans was that the Navy should keep six of the seven, so three is a downgrade. )

But there's an even more basic question than how many ships are at stake here: Can any of this actually happen?

The Navy is counting on its cruisers going away to afford its remaining surface force. The Air Force is preparing to ice its C-27J Spartans even before Congress has actually given the go-ahead. The Army is unmoved in its belief that General Dynamics' Lima, Ohio tank plant must go dark for a few years to save money. And all those assumptions themselves assume the budgetary guillotine doesn't fall this January, slicing away another $500 billion in planned DoD budget growth.

McKeon said the sequestration threat must be dealt with, but he didn't say how. He warned about the dangers the U.S. debt crisis poses to its national security, but gave no prescriptions for resolving it. This may be because McKeon has already talked elsewhere about his proposal to begin reducing the federal workforce in order to defray the first year of sequestration, to give Congress "more time" to reach a permanent solution.

The only problem is that congressional Democrats and President Obama won't go along. In fact, Obama has promised to veto any measure that would void or defray sequestration, denying Congress a get-out-of-bad-legislation-free card. That sure makes Republicans mad but it does not make any progress toward resolving this impasse. So after more time has ticked by and the Armed Services Committee chairman has given another major speech, Washington has made zero forward progress.

It's probably too late for a deal. Republicans and Democrats have staked out their positions and now will wait for voters to break the logjam, even though it'll be the same Congress that comes back after the election and has to deal with sequestration and the expiring Bush-era tax cuts. In the meantime, there's no percentage in compromise.

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