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ANALYSIS

Senate Democrats could still thwart Trump's military buildup plans

By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 23, 2017

WASHINGTON – Hopes that President Donald Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress will quickly pass the biggest military buildup in a generation are set to face hard political realities on Capitol Hill, a group of budget experts said Monday.

“It’s not Christmas in July,” despite a sense of euphoria and optimism in defense circles, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.

Senate Democrats could still block any moves to get around defense spending caps – the biggest obstacle standing in the way of Trump’s estimated $80-billion annual hike for troops, ships and aircraft, Eaglen and other experts on the defense budget said during a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, another Washington think tank.

“I think that a lot of people assume that after the election we have one-party control of government so as long as Republicans agree with each other and come up with a plan … then they can just push it through,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the center. “But not so quick. They going to have to have some Democrats.”

The president has proposed a 350-ship Navy, up from 276; an Army of 540,000, up from 490,000; an increase to 36 Marine Corps battalions from 23, and about 87 more Air Force fighter aircraft. The new administration could release a proposed, top-line spending amount for the Defense Department next month.

The additional personnel and hardware could be the biggest defense buildup since the 1980s and require about $80 billion above the current $619-million defense budget, according to a Center for Strategic and International Studies estimate.

Republican hawks have been clamoring for more defense spending, saying the military has become depleted and less ready to fight in recent years. Overall, spending has been declining since the United States formally ended ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fiscal conservatives in Congress spurred a budget law in 2011 that placed limits on defense and other federal spending as a way to rein in public debt. The caps have been amended multiple times since but have still held down funding for the military.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he “could not agree more” with Trump and the senator released a defense white paper last week proposing an $86-billion annual increase to military spending during the next five years.

The cost is high but without the boost in spending the military’s ability to fight and deter adversaries will be irreparably harmed, McCain said in a statement.

McCain has had a strong ally on defense spending in the House, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who said on Monday he is also backing the bigger budget proposed by McCain.

“If the Trump administration and the Congress decide they are willing to take greater risk in some areas, then the numbers can be adjusted,” Thornberry said in a released statement. “But playing politics with our troops has gone on too long and has done too much damage.”

However, Trump and proponents in Congress must get the new spending passed through the Senate – and avoid a filibuster by Democrats who control 48 votes out of 100. The Republicans need 60 votes to end debate and bring a piece of legislation on defense spending to a final vote.

“There is no way around this that I have found to provide more money that doesn’t potentially take 60 votes … the question is whether there are 41 people in the Senate who want to extract a price for a defense increase or just plain disagree with that defense increase,” said Richard Kogan, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten
 

The U.S. Senate.
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