By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Pentagon chief Leon Panetta warned lawmakers last month not to pick apart piece by piece the finely balanced 2013 defense budget he sent to Capitol Hill earlier this year.
But lawmakers in the Republican-led House of Representatives are doing exactly that.
The House Armed Services Committee began work on Wednesday on a defense policy bill that would authorize nearly $4 billion in spending above the amount Panetta requested in the Pentagon budget he had proposed.
That would nearly obliterate the $5 billion Panetta trimmed from the 2013 budget as part of efforts to cut $487 billion in projected defense spending over the next decade. Congress and President Barack Obama ordered the cuts last year to try to bring the country's trillion-dollar deficits under control.
While the House Armed Services Committee authorizes spending levels, it does not control actual funding. The panel that controls the purse strings - the House Appropriations Committee - is also looking to boost defense spending over the levels recommended by Panetta, by about $3.1 billion.
The defense subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee approved that amount on Monday, sending the measure to the full committee, where it could be raised or lowered before going to the full House.
Both House panels would use the funds to stave off cutbacks proposed by the Pentagon. Where Panetta sought to delay or eliminate some weapons systems, lawmakers are trying to save them. Where Panetta sought to reduce the size of the armed forces over time, lawmakers are trying to slow the pace.
"This (bill) actively rebuilds the military within the constrained resources available to us," House Armed Services chairman Buck McKeon told the committee. "We have preserved some of our vital force structure, like protecting cruisers and slowing Army and Marine Corps end-strength reductions to ensure the president's new defense strategy is not a paper tiger."
At issue is the $525.4 billion defense budget that Obama sent to Congress early this year. The spending plan would reduce defense outlays by about $5 billion, or 1 percent, the first cuts in more than a decade.
The two House panels use different figures for the base Defense budget because they include different programs. But the chairmen of both panels said their proposals would add more than $3 billion to the president's funding request.
The proposed budget is about $45 billion less than what the Pentagon had planned, just a year ago, to spend during the 2013 fiscal year. To meet the new targets, Panetta and the military service chiefs intend to cut the size of the armed forces by about 103,000 troops, mainly soldiers and Marines.
They also proposed to eliminate four Marine Corps tactical air squadrons, seven Air Force tactical air squadrons and 130 transport aircraft - 27 C-5s, 65 C-130s and 38 C-27s.
The Navy would retire seven older cruisers and two landing ship docks. And the Pentagon would terminate some weapons systems, such as a variant of the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft, and raise fees on the healthcare plans for military retirees.
"This is a zero-sum game," Panetta told a briefing last month. Because of the spending constraints approved by Obama and Congress, "any change in any one area of the budget and force structure will inevitably require offsetting changes elsewhere."
Failure to support elimination of the six weapons systems slated for termination would force the Pentagon to cut $9.6 billion elsewhere, Panetta said. Rejection of the fee hikes on healthcare would force the military to cut $13 billion from other programs, he added.
That could mean further cuts in top-priority weapons systems, more reductions in the size of the military force or reduced spending on the training needed to keep troops battle-ready or research needed to maintain cutting-edge weapons.
"There is very little margin for error with this package," Panetta said. "Our hope is that our strategy will not be picked apart piece by piece."
The House panels are moving to block the proposed elimination of some of the Air Force transport aircraft. And they are seeking funds to modernize three Navy cruisers to stave off their retirement, saying the vessels are needed because of the Pentagon's recent shift in strategic focus to the Pacific.
"The Obama administration proposal to pivot to Asia while cutting Navy shipbuilding and Air Force projection power makes no sense," Congressman Todd Akin told the panel.
The HASC would endorse nearly all of the troop cuts proposed by the Pentagon but would limit Army reductions to no more than 15,000 per year and Marine Corps reductions to no more than 5,000 per year between 2014 and 2017.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)