WASHINGTON — As another debt-deal deadline looms this winter in Congress, an unusual alliance of lawmakers has joined forces to put the Pentagon budget under greater scrutiny and to end the almost carte blanche status it enjoyed in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In a letter last month to President Barack Obama and congressional leaders, 11 Democratic and 11 Republican lawmakers asked that Defense Department spending be put squarely on the table in the coming clashes over debt reduction.
We believe that substantial defense savings can be achieved over the long term without compromising national security, through strategic reductions in the Pentagons budget, the lawmakers wrote in the letter.
Shifting fiscal and political pressures influence the emerging congressional coalition; approval ratings have hit historic lows among Americans upset by gridlock.
But some military experts, both analysts who favor deeper spending cuts and those who oppose them, say there are additional reasons for the re-examination: The record federal debt, now at more than $16.4 trillion, has become a crucial priority that Pentagon leaders say affects military planning. At the same time, the national urgency over anti-terrorism has subsided as the Sept. 11 attacks recede into the chronological distance; the war in Iraq has ended, the war in Afghanistan is winding down and anti-terror efforts shift to new strongholds such as Mali and Yemen.
Lawrence Korb, who held a senior Pentagon post under President Ronald Reagan, sees a group of unlikely partners: Democrats who want to preserve social programs, tea party-backed Republicans focused on slashing the debt and libertarians aligned with Rep. Ron Paul the Texas Republican and 2012 presidential candidate who generally oppose U.S. military ventures abroad.
The congressional coalition has been at the center of a movement thats stunted defense spending since its 2010 peak of $729 billion.
The tide has turned, Korb said.
First came the 2011 Budget Control Act, which imposed $487 billion in Pentagon funding cuts over a decade. It also directed Congress to find an additional $500 billion in reductions or accept forced across-the-board 8.6 percent cuts amounting to that total, now slated to start March 1.
Then, last July, the House of Representatives comfortably approved a one-year freeze on military spending, with 89 Republicans joining 158 Democrats in voting for it. While the moratorium didnt become law, it sent a signal that bipartisan resistance to unbridled military funding was rising.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, an Indian Land Republican who helped spearhead the bipartisan letter, said it was intellectually dishonest for his party to protect the Pentagon while taking the knife to other federal agencies.
It undermines Republicans credibility on spending issues if were not willing to also look at the defense budget for possible savings, said Mulvaney, whos just starting his second term representing South Carolinas 5th Congressional District. Its hard to go home and say that we want to cut everything but not cut a penny on defense. People dont believe that. More and more Republicans are willing to talk about this openly now.
While the lawmakers who wrote last months letter have yet to get a response, the broader movement they represent alarms some defense analysts.
By the time the Obama administration and Congress are done, we wont have a big enough military to do what we need to do to remain a global power, Thomas Donnelly, an analyst with the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said.