WASHINGTON – Pressing Pentagon demands in a time of terror threats and Islamic State militants have put newly empowered congressional Republicans in a bind. Defense hawks want to wipe out previous spending cuts to steer more money to the military, but the GOP is divided over how to do it without piling billions onto the deficit.
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Many deficit hawks insist that any increases for the military should be financed by cuts to domestic programs even as GOP pragmatists warn that could cause a budget logjam that would drag on for months. And that's before GOP leaders begin talks with President Barack Obama, who's demanding increases for domestic agencies, too.
At issue is the budget for the upcoming fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. While programs like Social Security, Medicare and food stamps run on autopilot, agency budgets are passed by Congress each year and require Obama's signature.
The problem stems from the hard-fought budget and debt bill of August 2011. A so-called supercommittee failed to reach a broad fiscal deal, resulting in spending cuts on the day-to-day operating budgets of virtually every federal agency. Two years later, the pain hit — across-the-board spending cuts.
The result was a blow to the Pentagon, with the department's core spending on ships, planes, personnel and warfighting equipment reduced. Instead of a core budget of $577 billion, defense spending would be limited to $523 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
"We really cannot put a 2016 spending plan together at the $523 billion level," said senior House Armed Service Committee member Michael Conaway, R-Texas. "That's just unacceptable. We have to fix it somehow."
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While many GOP conservatives want to reduce the budget for domestic agencies to free up funds for the military, party pragmatists warn that this approach failed badly when House Republicans tried it two years ago.
Others are eying cuts to other programs to provide relief similar to the bipartisan 2013 budget deal than rankled GOP conservatives.
Under Capitol Hill's arcane process, Congress first passes a non-binding measure called a budget resolution that sets overall spending and lays out agency budgets in broad parameters. Then the appropriations committees get to work, spending much of the summer and fall writing detailed spending bills.
The budget typically passes on a party-line vote, but the individual spending bills need at least some Democratic support since several GOP hard-liners refuse to back many of them in an effort to rein in government spending.
Any resolution of the mess appears to be months away since Republicans appear certain to go their own way on the budget. Ultimately they'll need Obama's approval on any solution since they lack the votes to overcome any vetoes.
Obama requested an additional $38 billion for the Pentagon and $37 billion more for non-defense programs in his budget, financed by tax hikes and spending cuts such as curbing payments to health care providers. Republicans swiftly dismissed the idea.
Some Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and hardliners in both the House and Senate, want to stick to the tighter limits. That means more money for defense could only come from raiding non-defense programs dear to Obama and his Democratic allies.
"I'd like to have more money for defense," McConnell said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "What I want is the overall cap to stay in place if possible. And it's a challenge because to restore money on defense, the Democrats are going to want to restore money on the domestic side. So it's a big challenge."
House Republicans tried that approach two years ago but stalled after Democrats withheld support for pared-back domestic spending bills and GOP conservatives refused to vote for them either. GOP leaders were forced to pull a bill funding transportation and housing programs, and Congress' appropriations process stalled.
"We can't pass bills that way," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who sits on both the Budget and Appropriations committees. "If you savage all these other accounts and Republicans aren't willing to vote for them even then, which is what happened when T-HUD (transportation, housing and urban development) went down a couple years ago, then you put yourself in a situation where you can't move legislation."
The impasse and a subsequent partial government shutdown led Republicans to seek a more peaceful resolution. A subsequent agreement between Republicans controlling the House and the then-Democratic-controlled Senate in late 2013 restored $63 billion worth of sequester cuts over fiscal 2014 and 2015, paid for by a combination of other cuts and user fees spread out over a decade.
Some Republicans and the White House see the 2013 agreement, negotiated by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., as a model to emulate.
"I don't see any reason why Congress couldn't come together and do that again ... paid for by deficit reduction spread out over time," said top White House economist Jason Furman in a recent interview with the AP.
"It's a work in progress," said House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga.