Clinton may face a tug-of-war over defense budget Democratic allies could resist cuts in home projects

November 09, 1992|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- When President-elect Bill Clinton puts together his first defense budget, he will have to make some hard choices that could put him at odds with fellow Democrats in Congress or force him to renege on campaign promises.

Many defense analysts in and out of government, including some consulted by the Clinton policy team in the last few weeks, believe the customary post-election honeymoon will end abruptly once Democrats realize that their military bases, National Guard units, supply contracts and local weapons projects will have to be cut to generate cash for domestic programs.

"The politics of this are hard to read right now, but Clinton's really risking a backlash in Congress," said Stephen A. Daggett Jr., a defense budget specialist at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

On the few occasions when defense issues came up in the presidential campaign, Mr. Clinton proposed replacing the nation's "Cold War military structure" with a smaller, more flexible mix of forces that could counter new, regional threats to U.S. interests.

Some specific steps included trimming the Bush administration's five-year, $1.42 trillion defense budget by $60 billion, or 4 percent, and increasing planned reductions in active-duty military personnel by an additional 200,000 troops, or 12 percent. This would leave a force of 1.4 million men and women.

Although he embraced some expensive -- and troubled -- military projects that have powerful backers in Congress, such as the V-22 Osprey aircraft and C-17 cargo plane, Mr. Clinton said more than once that he opposed spending tax money on defense "pork" if it didn't contribute to a leaner, more effective fighting force.

"There are those, some in my party, who see defense cuts as largely a piggy-bank to fund domestic wish lists," Mr. Clinton said in August. He condemned this as a "wrongheaded and dangerous" approach to defense restructuring that would "weaken our technological superiority and the quality and morale of our superb personnel."

A struggle predicted

But if the Bush administration's experience is any guide, Mr. Clinton will have trouble keeping big helpings of pork off his own defense plate. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney canceled 120 weapons systems in the last three years, but Congress repeatedly ordered him to buy more tanks, fighter jets and even combat boots than the military needed.

"The biggest challenge we face working with a new administration is, frankly, getting the Congress to understand the need to reduce defense in a balanced way and not protect those things that are of such great constituent interest," Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an unpublicized Election Day speech here.

By his own defense plan, Mr. Clinton would have to cut at least $12.5 billion in fiscal 1994 to lay the groundwork for his long-range military restructuring, including a $2.5 billion cut in new inventory and a $1.5 billion cut in intelligence -- larger reductions than Congress was willing to make this year.

Lawrence Korb, a Pentagon official under President Ronald Reagan who has been consulted by the Clinton team, said the incoming president may struggle just to produce $4 billion in first-year cuts.

Mr. Daggett agrees. "What Clinton has to do is probably come in with a budget amendment in March that I think will make marginal changes" in programs such as the Strategic Defense ** Initiative, also known as "star wars," he said.

A list of questions

There are several budget questions Mr. Clinton must decide soon, not all of which offer immediate savings. Among them:

* How many military bases should be closed? The Bush administration, which already is preparing the fiscal 1994 defense budget that will be unveiled soon after Mr. Clinton's inauguration, is expected to target dozens of military bases for -- the next round of closings, which will be decided by an independent commission later in the year.

Mr. Clinton must decide whether to adopt that list as his own or come up with a more extensive one that promises greater savings, after weighing the probability of giving himself a huge political headache. And even if he persuades Congress to go along, actual savings would not be realized until the facilities are shut down several years from now, analysts say.

* Should cuts in military personnel and U.S. forces in Europe be accelerated? The military already has been reducing its active-duty ranks way ahead of schedule, mostly relying on stricter promotion policies, financial incentives and some layoffs. And the Army, comprising the bulk of U.S. forces in Europe, has been withdrawing from there so quickly that it will meet a 1995 deadline at least a year in advance.

Mr. Clinton has supported the current rate of overall reductions, roughly 100,000 troops a year, and declared his aversion to massive layoffs, saying: "I do not want undue dislocation of the lives of the people who won the Cold War for us."

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