Republicans locked into dilemma of their own making over defense spending

January 25, 1995|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The new Republican majority in Congress is poised to put President Clinton's entire defense budget policy under a microscope, with an eye to beefing up readiness, modernizing weapons and curtailing overseas missions.

But efforts by the GOP to boost the strength and efficiency of the nation's armed forces will be constrained by lack of money. The administration, by contrast, says it does not need the additional defense dollars the Republican-controlled Congress wants.

The Republicans are also locked into a dilemma of their own making: While supporting increased defense spending, they are also committed to deficit reduction, a difficult duo to deliver when there isn't spare cash available.

"We have a balanced budget to worry about," said Rep. Floyd D. Spence, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the House National Security Committee. "We are cutting back everywhere else. We have to figure out what we can do [for defense]."

Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said: "The Republicans are going to have to sort things out. They will have to decide how much they want to concentrate on deficit reduction and how much on increasing defense."

Faced with the prospect of Congress approving more money than the Pentagon is asking for, the administration might find itself in an argument with Republicans over how the extra cash should be spent.

The administration asserts that its defense spending is sufficient to maintain a ready and able military machine, and Defense Secretary William J. Perry has made it clear that he will defend the priorities set in his 1996 budget, which will be introduced next month, against GOP criticism.

"Are we spending enough?" asked Deputy Defense Secretary John Deutch earlier this month. "I want to make clear that Bill Perry and I believe that the answer today is yes."

Mr. Spence disagreed. "That's the civilian leadership saying those kind of things, taking orders from the administration," he said. "That's not voicing the real needs of the military. We have to show the people there is a difference."

The approach of the Republicans is driven by what they believe are two flaws in the Clinton policy:

* The erosion of military readiness, caused by underfunding for training troops and modernizing weapons.

* An overcommitment of U.S. forces to peacekeeping and humanitarian missions, such as in Somalia, Rwanda and Haiti, which many say have been too costly, too dangerous and too numerous.

One problem for Republicans and Democrats in Congress: Under federal spending limits, any increase in defense spending must be offset by cuts in other programs.

"It leaves them very little wiggle room on defense," said Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Defense Budget Project, a centrist think tank in Washington.

The most likely outcome is that Republicans will decide to freeze fiscal 1996 defense spending at this year's level of $270 billion, adjusted for inflation -- $14 billion more than the administration proposes.

In general, a freeze is a device to limit spending. But because Mr. Clinton has proposed spending less in fiscal 1996 than this fiscal year, the GOP freeze initiative, if approved, would actually funnel more money to the Pentagon than the administration wants.

Such a freeze was endorsed last week by Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, led by its chairman, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. The GOP members would also crank in $6 billion to account for inflation.

"That [the freeze] isn't going to solve the problem," said a senior Republican Senate defense aide who asked not to be named. "It just keeps it [the spending levels] from getting worse and gives you a little time. Ultimately, what we have is a fundamental mismatch between the declared strategy and the resources that are likely to be available."

Among the defense priorities set by the Republicans are:

* Improving military readiness with higher funding for training, equipment and improved living conditions to help retain experienced troops.

The Clinton administration shares those priorities but asserts that military readiness is a problem largely because of Congress' failure to give timely approval to supplemental funding for overseas emergency operations, such as in Rwanda and Haiti.

Those unforeseen costs last year had to be paid out of the Pentagon's operations and maintenance budget, at the expense training schedules and other routine military functions.

To prevent a recurrence, the administration is asking for a $2 billion supplement to the current budget to cover outlays in Haiti and other unanticipated emergency costs. Republicans are reluctant to approve any contingency funding, saying they suspect the money might be siphoned off for nonemergency uses.

* Increasing investment in modern weapons systems.

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