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Trump's Defense Spending Boost Faces Fight in Congress

The White House outlined its fiscal 2018 budget proposal Monday, including a $54 billion increase in defense spending that hawks on Capitol Hill have already said is not enough to rebuild the military and boost readiness.

The budget proposal to be presented to Congress on Tuesday would also increase by 6 percent the current $180 billion budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs to boost hiring and expand the Choice Program for private care.

The increases for defense, the VA and Homeland Security, targeted for a 7 percent boost, would be offset by major cuts to domestic programs, including Medicaid for the poor, but Social Security and Medicare reportedly would be spared.

The overall White House proposal faces stiff opposition in Congress, which has the final say on spending.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) predicted that the spending outline from President Donald Trump would not survive the legislative process. "This budget is taking the fast lane to rejection by the American people and both parties in Congress," he said in a statement Sunday.

Some senior House Republicans also took issue with the Trump's first budget proposal. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, called the suggestions for cuts in farm programs "wrongheaded."

At the Pentagon on Tuesday, chief budget officials for the Defense Department and the services are to outline their wish lists for spending on pay, personnel, acquisitions, and reform in line with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis' main goal of boosting readiness.

According to several news reports, Trump is proposing a baseline Defense Department budget of $574 billion. The spending plan would also include $29 billion for defense of Energy Department nuclear programs for a total base defense budget of $603 billion.

The White House is also asking for another $65 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations -- the so-called "war budget" -- which is not subject to the sequestration budget caps of the 2011 Budget Control Act.

According to White House projections, the $603 billion DoD baseline budget would represent a $54 billion increase over the budget caps set by the Budget Control Act. However, critics said it is only an $18.5 billion increase over fiscal 2018 proposals by former President Barack Obama's administration.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, appeared to agree that Trump isn't doing much beyond what Obama proposed.

"I think it is fair to say it's basically the Obama approach with a little bit more, but not much," Thornberry said Monday at a Brookings Institution forum.

"I think that the budget that the administration will propose is roughly 3 percent more than what President Obama had suggested for this year. It's roughly a 5 percent increase over current year funding," said Thornberry, who has already suggested adding $37 billion on top of Trump's proposal to bring the DoD baseline budget to $640 billion.

Another Texas Republican, Rep. Kay Granger, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, said last week that Thornberry's $640 billion proposal is a pipedream.

At a Bloomberg Government event last Thursday, Granger said Congress would not agree to $640 billion for defense "unless something drops from heaven."

"I don't see how we get to that number this year, though we can get as close as we can this year, and the next year and the next year," she said.

Thornberry's proposals for military spending increases well beyond those in the White House budget outline, coupled with the push by Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to get rid of the Budget Control Act spending caps altogether, indicate that Congress will once again have a hard time reaching agreement on spending by the start of the fiscal year.

Thornberry noted Congress has resorted to Continuing Resolutions for the past eight years to avoid government shutdowns over failure to reach a budget agreement.

"Even some of my colleagues are saying we're in for a year-long CR" in fiscal 2018 as well, he said of the upcoming battles over spending. "I can't tell you how all the Washington games will play out, but there is real damage that needs to be repaired, and our adversaries are not sitting still" on their own defense budgets.

What is needed, Thornberry said, is a return to the yearly defense spending increases of 10 to 18 percent that occurred during the administration of former President Ronald Reagan.

"That is what it took to overcome the neglect and damage done in the 1970s to our military, and I think that sort of context kind of helps us with the size and the duration of what sort of repair work that is needed for the problems that we face," he said.

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