WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates faces obstacles from opposite ends of the budget debate as he tries to maneuver the military's 2012 funding request through Congress: fiscally conservative lawmakers demanding further defense cuts, and defense stalwarts balking at Gates' proposed trims.

On Wednesday, after months of preaching spending restraint and the need for harsh budget cuts, House lawmakers used their first hearing on next fiscal year’s defense budget to try and walk back billions in proposed program reductions.

“Tough choices must be made, but I will not support initiatives that will leave our military less capable and less ready to fight,” said Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

The Defense Department’s fiscal 2012 base budget request totals $553 billion, a $5 billion increase from last year’s proposal but also significantly lower than previous military budget increases.

Current plans include about $78 billion in reduced Pentagon spending over the next five years and another $100 billion in funding shifts to deal with short-term strategic priorities and force-modernization efforts. Civilian defense hiring will be nearly completely frozen, the Army and Marine Corps will see their end strengths cut in coming years, and overpriced weapons programs — such as the Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle — will be ended.

But lawmakers on the committee questioned the wisdom of ending the EFV and reductions in ship buying and sparred with the defense secretary over his ongoing fight to end spending on an alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter. Representatives from both sides also harshly criticized plans to save $6 billion in coming years by reducing military personnel.

Gates defended the plans as responsible cost-cutting without jeopardizing national security. But at the same time he took aim at lawmakers outside the committee who have publicly called for deeper cuts to defense funds, which account for more than half of the discretionary spending in the president’s proposed fiscal 2012 budget.

“We still live in a very dangerous and very unstable world,” he said. “Retrenchment brought about by short-sighted cuts could well lead to costlier and more tragic consequences later, as they always have in the past.”

Too often, he said, discussion of the defense budget in Congress “is treated as a math problem.” A 10 percent cut in spending for overseas conflict and future threats would make only a nominal difference in the national debt, but could “cripple” the department.

But new Republican lawmakers in the House have called for those deeper cuts, not just in fiscal 2012 but in the department’s ongoing fiscal 2011 budget.

Even though the current fiscal year started more than four months ago, the Defense Department and most other federal agencies have been operating under a temporary budget, set to expire next month, based on fiscal 2010 levels. Some lawmakers have floated the idea of funding the government at the lower spending levels for the remainder of the fiscal year, a move that would save about $23 billion in Pentagon spending.

Both Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen pleaded with committee members to make at least some of that money available, saying at minimum $14 billion more than the temporary budget allows is needed to responsibly fund the military.

Mullen said that already the funding shortfall has halted purchase of a destroyer and submarine, and halted critical construction projects around the globe. Gates said without the money, officials will order cuts in flying hours, cuts in equipment maintenance, and cuts in personnel training.

McKeon and ranking committee member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., both pledged to fight to get the fiscal 2011 budget passed. House members will spend the rest of the week debating a continuing resolution to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year, at the lower 2010 levels.

Later on Wednesday, Gates did get his first budget victory of the year. House members voted 233-198 to strip funding for the Joint Strike Fighter alternate engine from the latest fiscal 2011 budget bill, saving $450 million. In a statement, Gates called that an important first step in getting the right spending levels passed for the Pentagon.

Reporter Kevin Baron contributed to this story.

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