McCain kicks off debate in Senate over military buildup
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 24, 2017
WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain on Tuesday convened a Senate hearing and urged a costly and long-term build-up of the military to reverse years of falling budgets.
The Arizona Republican fired the opening salvo in a coming political debate in Congress this year over President Donald Trump’s promise to rebuild a “depleted” military with an historic increase in defense spending for troops, ships and aircraft.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee – in a possible preview of the party’s political strategy toward the Republican plans – shot back with calls to also fund domestic security programs, which also have been squeezed by spending caps in recent years.
The defense budget fight is only beginning and the Armed Services Committee will play a central role in crafting 2018 military plans passed later this year by Congress. McCain is pushing for a $640-billion base defense budget that would shatter a $549-billion spending cap imposed by federal law, meaning Republicans and Democrats will need to reach an agreement to ease the limits.
“It will not be easy,” McCain said. “Rebuilding America’s military will require spending political capital and making policy trade-offs. That’s why national defense must be a political priority on par with repealing and replacing Obamacare, rebuilding infrastructure and reforming the tax code.”
Indeed, Republicans will likely be forced to meet some demands of Senate Democrats, who still control 48 seats in the chamber and could filibuster efforts to remove or sidestep the spending caps that now stand in the way of the McCain and Trump plans.
Democrats have demanded a deal to boost defense spending also must include more money for programs such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department and the FBI.
“Many of my colleagues will maintain that the defense bill is not a vehicle to discuss the fate of domestic spending,” Reed said Tuesday. “However, for the past several years, I have argued that when it comes to questions of adequate funding, we need to consider all the security responsibilities of our nation, not just those that are executed by the Department of Defense.”
Despite Trump’s victory and Republican control of Congress, lawmakers are still stuck with federal budget caps passed in 2011 that block increases for the military and other programs.
The Trump administration has yet to release its plans for the Defense Department but the president’s earlier proposals for a much bigger Navy fleet as well as more soldiers and Marines could require an extra $80 billion per year above planned spending, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C. think tank.
McCain’s budget proposal was released last week and lays out a five-year build-up, calling for:
- The Army to grow by 8,000 soldiers each year through 2022.
- Navy plans for 41 new ships to increase by 18 and additional purchases of 58 F/A-18 Super Hornets and 16 EA-18G Growler aircraft.
- The Marine Corps to grow by 3,000 Marines each year and reach at total of 200,000 by 2022, as well as an additional 20 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters for the service.
- The Air Force to have 1,500 combat aircraft, up from 1,100 now.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have warned that falling defense budgets in recent years have stressed and eroded the military as it carries out a variety of global tasks such as the war against the Islamic State group, stability operations in Afghanistan and deterrence against China in the Pacific region.
Any defense buildup during the coming year would only be the beginning of what is needed, said Thomas Mahnken, the president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.
“The Pentagon is a lot like a person who has been slowly starving for years” and can only spend new budget money so quickly, meaning a buildup will require years of work by Congress, Mahnken said.