A Senate panel on Tuesday approved a freeze in defense spending at $513 billion for the next military budget, including a $1.6 billion cut in funds that the Pentagon says it doesn't need for Afghanistan security forces even as the U.S. Embassy in Kabul came under attack.
By voice vote, the Appropriations defense subcommittee gave the go-ahead to the sweeping legislation that would slash $26 billion from President Barack Obama's request for the Defense Department in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The bill is a reflection of the congressional clamor for fiscal belt-tightening and stands as the first installment in defense cuts of $350 billion over a decade as spelled out in the deficit-cutting compromise worked out by Obama and congressional Republicans last month.
"While some of the cuts will be considered tough, we believe they are not only fair but prudent, and represent an important step in improving the department's fiscal accountability in this difficult budget environment," said Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the subcommittee.
The bill puts the Senate at odds with the House, which earlier this summer passed a defense bill that's $17 billion more at $530 billion. The difference represents a significant obstacle that must be overcome in the coming weeks as Congress tries to produce a budget.
Base defense spending has nearly doubled in the 10 years since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, with the Pentagon getting just about everything it sought. That money is separate from the more than $1 trillion the nation has spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Senate panel fully funded the Obama administration's request for nearly $118 billion next year for the wars, an amount in addition to the base budget. But with the start of the drawdown of some 100,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan this fall, the Pentagon revised one element of its budget request, informing lawmakers that more than $10 billion could be cut from the overall defense budget, Inouye said.
Among those reductions are $5 billion for U.S. troops in Afghanistan and $1.6 billion for training of the Afghan Security Forces that U.S. commanders had identified as an "overstated requirement," Inouye said.
The committee vote came just hours after insurgents fired grenades and assault rifles at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, NATO headquarters and other sites in the capital, while suicide bombers struck police buildings. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
The Pentagon is trying to cut the cost of building the Afghan army and police forces able to secure the country after international forces leave. Several defense officials said Tuesday that they're reassessing the budget of the multibillion-a-year program, looking first for savings on equipment. But it's unclear whether they can save enough without also scaling back plans for increasing the size of the Afghan army and police forces to a planned 352,000 from the current 302,000.
As the special bipartisan supercommittee met elsewhere in the Capitol on potential spending cuts, including defense, the Senate panel approved a $695 million reduction in the troubled Joint Strike Fighter program, calling for production to remain at current levels for two more years to limit the cost.
The Pentagon envisions purchasing more than 2,400 of the stealthy aircraft for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. But the costs of the Lockheed Martin-made jet fighter have increased 26 percent while its schedule has slipped five years due to design changes, problems with software development and technical difficulties. Ten years into the program, the cost has jumped from $233 billion to $385 billion.
"For each aircraft we build this early in the test program, we will have to pay many millions in the future to fix the problems that are identified in testing," Inouye said.
The full Senate Appropriations Committee will consider the spending bill Thursday. Lawmakers repeatedly acknowledged the fiscal reality that a deficit expected to exceed $1 trillion this year would have an impact on all parts of the budget, including defense.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said the nation is in a period when it's trying avoid spending money the government doesn't have.
The supercommittee is charged with coming up with $1.5 trillion in cuts by Nov. 23. If it is unable to produce that amount, or Congress rejects its plan, automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion would go into effect, with half coming from defense.
Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report.