Sen. Rand Paul said moving the Coast Guard to the Defense Department would "promote uniformity, administrative savings, and reduce duplicative functions." (Tom Pennington / Getty Images)
The House of Representatives has endorsed the idea of the Pentagon sacrificing $78 billion in the name of deficit reduction, but new moves are afoot that could lead to even larger cuts as early as this summer.
In the Senate, a dozen lawmakers have banded together in support of legislation to cap all federal spending — including defense — over the next decade as a way to cut the national debt.
Meanwhile, a prominent tea party supporter — Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. — is calling on conservative Republicans who might normally support bigger defense budgets to accept the fact that serious cuts in federal spending cannot be made as long as defense is exempt.
This could all come to a head in mid-May, when Congress could face a new financial crisis unless the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling is raised to allow continued federal borrowing.
A growing number of lawmakers are demanding that any increase in the debt ceiling be linked to a package of substantial spending cuts that could reduce growth in the deficit or, if big enough, stop deficit spending altogether within five to 10 years. And, many of them expect defense cuts to be part of such a deficit reduction package.
"We borrow nearly 40 cents of every dollar we spend, our debt is more than $14 trillion and is averaging yearly trillion-dollar deficits," said Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., House majority leader. "We simply cannot afford to keep spending money we don't have. We must bring down the debt."
Paul is one lawmaker expecting defense cuts to be part of the mix.
"Conservatives will have to compromise, and we will have to cut military spending. Liberals will have to compromise and will have to cut domestic welfare. The compromise is where to cut, not whether to raise taxes," Paul said April 17 in an interview on CNN.
A bipartisan group of a dozen senators, led by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., is backing a bill, S 245, to reduce federal spending as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product each year for 10 consecutive years, a decline that would reduce federal spending by $7.6 trillion over a decade.
President Obama's April 13 announcement that he wants the Defense Department to find $400 billion in budget savings over 10 years is part of an effort to influence the debt ceiling debate, although details about additional cuts in military spending are unlikely to be known by the time the debt ceiling needs to be lifted.
Ashton Carter, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said April 20 that it was not yet clear how much of the $400 billion in savings by 2023 requested by Obama from security programs would come from DoD and how much might come from other security-related programs.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has not issued guidance about how the military might identify additional savings, Carter said, but he predicted the military would embark on another top-to-bottom review.
"Obviously, we will be scrutinizing all of our programs for what is not needed," he said.
There is resistance within the Pentagon to making additional cuts, Carter said, but also a realization that a decade of constantly expanding defense budgets has come to an end and that "undoubtedly" some current programs will end.
On April 15, the House passed a $1.019 trillion federal budget plan for 2012, $102 billion less than Obama requested. Over a decade, the plan would cut $6.2 trillion in federal spending — without any cuts in defense beyond what Gates proposed in January when he approved a plan that shifted $100 billion within the defense budget and cut spending by an additional $78 billion over five years.
On defense, the House-passed budget provides $583 billion in 2012, exactly that the Obama administration requested after adjustment for differences between administration and congressional estimates for the cost of current programs.
The budget resolution is only a broad spending guide, without details. The House Armed Services Committee intends to begin writing its version of the 2012 defense authorization bill May 4, when subcommittees begin providing specifics. The full armed services committee is scheduled to take up the defense bill May 11, operating under procedures that require spending to remain within the $583 billion cap on basic defense spending so that any additional spending must be offset by some savings.
In justifying its lack of additional defense cuts, the Republican plan, called "The Path to Prosperity," states: "Like all categories of government spending, defense spending should be executed with efficiency and accountability. But a responsible budget must never lose sight of the fact that the first responsibility of the federal government is to provide for the common defense.
"The men and women in uniform are not mere line items on a budget spreadsheet, especially when thousands of America's troops remain in harm's way around the world."