Pentagon, Lott push for big jump in defense spending Livingston, White House are cool to huge increase

December 15, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon next year could see the largest budget increase since the Reagan military buildup of the 1980s, with Republican leaders in Congress pressing to at least double the amount being considered by the Clinton administration.

Both sides see the need to offer sharp increases over this year's budget to resolve what military chiefs see as "serious wear" on the armed forces, which face a rising number of overseas missions with aging equipment and inadequate pay and benefits.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott called for an increase in the $250 billion defense budget, by "at least $20 billion," in a letter last week to Sen. Pete V. Domenici, the New Mexico Republican who chairs the Senate Budget Committee.

But in a setback for Lott's effort, House Speaker-elect Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana has declined to support such a sharp increase, the Los Angeles Times reported last night.

'Significant amount'

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen canceled a trip to Germany this week to work on a budget that his spokesman said would increase by a "significant amount," which sources said could be as high as $10 billion next year.

While one administration official called the $20 billion figure pushed by the Republicans "unrealistic," Lott questioned the administration's vows to increase the defense budget and deal with problems of military readiness.

"There are growing signs that little, if anything, will be done to increase the upcoming defense budget and future year program to meet these needs," he said. The White House budget office reportedly is balking at any sharp rise in defense spending.

Missile defense sought

Lott said such a budget increase is needed to boost recruiting and military pay, improve and modernize weapons, develop a "robust" missile defense system and reverse "the decline in ships and sea-based forces."

The service chiefs have said that their top needs involve more money for personnel, such as closing a pay gap with civilian workers and increasing retirement benefits, which dropped from percent of base pay to 40 percent for soldiers who enlisted after 1986.

The generals and admirals are also pushing for additional money for spare parts and weapons modernization. Gen. Dennis J. Reimer, the Army's chief of staff, told reporters last week that the service needs an additional $5 billion for its $64 billion budget. But he said the Army had yet to receive any budget figures from the administration.

Expanded operations

Pentagon officials note that total military forces have decreased 36 percent to a force of 1.4 million uniformed personnel and that its budget for military purchases has declined by 70 percent, when adjusted for inflation, from its peak during the Reagan administration. At the same time, operations have expanded, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Persian Gulf.

"The high operational tempo has caused some strains in readiness," said Kenneth Bacon, the Pentagon's spokesman.

But some analysts say that despite the Pentagon's concerns, there are still billions in fat to be trimmed from its budget. And others say the military must do more to shift from Cold War force of heavy armor, ships and aircraft to a lighter, leaner more high-technology military for the 21st century.

Moreover, Steven M. Kosiak, a senior budget analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent research institute, said that increasing the Pentagon's spending by the biggest margin since 1984 would be difficult given the current budget restraints.

That money will have to come from either taking funds from already reduced domestic programs, breaking the 1997 budget agreement -- which placed tight caps on spending -- or declaring the billions are needed on an emergency basis, he said.

Of the emergency $8.3 billion added in October to this year's defense bill, Kosiak noted, only $1 billion was spent on recruiting and other readiness issues.

The rest was devoted to military projects, ranging from helicopters for the anti-drug effort in Colombia to burying utilities at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, noted Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who called the spending choices a "fundamental abandonment" of those in uniform.

Ship for Lott's state

Lott has been criticized for adding to the budget last year a $1.5 billion amphibious assault ship that the Pentagon had not requested. The ship will be built in Mississippi, Lott's home state.

McCain, one of the chief opponents in Congress of "pork barrel" spending, served notice last week that he would not allow defense money to be spent on such parochial or non-readiness items.

The Arizona senator, together with Sens. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, and Charles S. Robb, a Virginia Democrat, wrote to the Senate Appropriations and Armed Services committee chairmen and vowed to use all legislative tactics next year to block what they termed "wasteful defense spending."

Pub Date: 12/15/98

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