Republicans are condemning President Joe Biden’s fiscal 2025 defense spending request for failing to keep pace with inflation, but it’s unclear whether there’s appetite on Capitol Hill to revisit the cap Congress itself imposed as part of last year’s debt ceiling agreement.

The debt ceiling agreement capped defense spending at $895 billion for FY25, ensuring the Defense Department would have to trim certain accounts. But these reductions, including a proposal to buy one fewer Virginia-class attack submarine and fewer F-35 fighter jets, are now generating outcry from lawmakers.

Meanwhile, Congress has not yet passed its five-months-overdue FY24 defense spending bill. And the $95 billion foreign aid bill for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan remains stuck in the House.

House Armed Services Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., noted in a statement Monday Biden’s “budget request complies with the mandated numbers of the” debt ceiling deal.

“Unfortunately, this defense top line number fails to keep pace with inflation and our adversaries,” said Rogers. “Our defense budget should be built with the goal of deterring the threats facing our nation. Instead, we are forced to build a budget to meet an arbitrary number. I worry about the long-term impact this budget process will have on our national defense.”

The debt ceiling caps allow for a 1% increase in defense spending from Biden’s $886 billion proposal in FY24 to $895 billion in FY25; the Pentagon’s share of that total is $850 billion. By contrast, inflation rose 3.4% in 2023, according to the Consumer Price Index.

“This is the fourth straight time the Biden administration has turned in a defense budget request that amounts to a net cut after inflation,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the floor Tuesday.

Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement “the Biden administration is not moving nearly quickly enough to prevent war with the Chinese Communist Party.” He noted China approved a 7.2% defense budget increase last week.

Conversely, Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., said in a statement Biden’s defense budget proposal “protects the American people, strengthens our defense-industrial base and aligns with the national security and fiscal challenges we face while adhering to the contours of the debt ceiling agreement Republicans demanded.”

The Defense Department had hoped to use the foreign aid bill, which includes an extra $67 billion in Pentagon spending, to relieve some of the budgetary pressures imposed by the debt ceiling caps. The Army, for instance, is calling for passage of the foreign aid bill to replenish munitions expended in Ukraine and the Middle East even as it waits on Congress to pass the full FY24 defense spending bill to finalize multiyear contracts.

‘Declining in real terms’

Elaine McCusker, a Pentagon comptroller during the Trump administration who is now a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told Defense News Congress should fund a Pentagon base budget of $893 billion for FY25 instead of $850 billion and immediately pass the delayed FY24 defense spending bill as well as the foreign aid legislation.

McCusker said “money for modernization is squeezed by the increasing costs of must-pay bills and by programs and activities in the defense budget that do not contribute to military capability.”

“We are seeing negative impacts on our security, competitiveness, military force and industrial base from a defense budget that is declining in real terms,” she added. “The use of the procurement budget as a bill-payer will only make program execution and our challenges with the industrial base and supply chain much worse.”

The Navy, for instance, sought to prioritize current operations and personnel costs while cutting one Virginia-class submarine from the budget and reducing research and development by 2.7% and military construction by 26.1%.

“If such a cut is actually enacted, it will remove one more attack submarine from a fleet that is already 17 submarines below the Navy’s long stated requirement of 66,” Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the House’s seapower panel, said in a statement. “This hard rudder turn by the Navy demands the highest scrutiny by the Congress.”

Courtney, whose district includes the Electric Boat shipyard that produces the Virginia-class vessels, said the request would not impact the yard’s goal of 5,200 new hires for 2024. But he cautioned it “will have a long-term impact on submarine industrial base workers.”

Wicker and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., also told reporters Tuesday they support buying two Virginia-class submarines in FY25, instead of one.

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., said in a statement the request threatens to “devastate our naval fleet and the Hampton Roads industrial base” in his district “by slowing aircraft carrier construction and failing to meet the two Virginia-class submarines per year cadence.”

Additionally, he noted the proposal would shrink Navy force structure “from 296 ships in FY24 to just 287 in FY25,” well short of the service’s 355-ship goal.

Wittman, who chairs the House’s tactical air and land forces panel, said the request “continues to decimate Air Force combat power by reducing the service’s total aircraft inventory by almost 130 airframes.”

The Air Force budget proposes buying 42 fewer Lockheed Martin-made F-35As and 24 fewer Boeing F-15EXs than planned. The service is seeking a procurement budget of $29 billion, down $1.6 billion from the prior year, but a research and development budget of $37.7 billion, up $1.5 billion from FY24.

Still, it remains unclear how Congress can increase modernization and procurement given the caps imposed by the debt ceiling agreement.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, told Defense News it’s “very premature” for discussions about circumventing the FY25 defense budget caps.

“I have been concerned about the impact of the caps on our defense for some time,” said Collins, noting she worked with Senate Democrats to try to add $8 billion in emergency funds to the FY24 defense spending bill.

Those emergency funds are not expected to be in the final FY24 defense spending bill, which Congress has yet to release. Lawmakers have funded the Pentagon at FY23 levels with four stopgap spending bills since the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1. Under the latest short-term spending bill, Defense Department funding will expire on March 22.

If Congress fails to pass a full budget by April 30, the Defense Department and all other agencies would operate on a one-year continuing resolution at a 1% cut from FY23 levels, putting further budgetary pressure on the Pentagon.

Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.

In Other News
Load More