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Biden faces squeeze on defense spending from Democratic hawks and doves

Liberals are angry that Biden proposed a bigger Pentagon budget, while some moderate Democrats are joining their GOP colleagues in calling for more robust defense spending.
Image: U.S. President Joe Biden visits Poland
President Joe Biden salutes soldiers Friday before he boards Air Force One in Jasionka, Poland. Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s budget has sparked a clash between Democrats at a time when the party is striving for unity heading into the midterm elections, pitting vulnerable moderates who favor more military spending against progressives who argue the Defense Department needs less money.

Liberal lawmakers are furious that Biden wants to boost military spending by about $30 billion in 2023, less than a year after having ended the two-decade war in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, some moderate Democratic defense hawks are breaking ranks and joining Republicans in blasting Biden for not proposing an even larger Pentagon budget amid fresh threats from Russia and China.

A president’s budget never pleases everyone — and the $5.8 trillion blueprint Biden unveiled this week is no exception.

But as the U.S desperately tries to end Russia’s bloody war in Ukraine and China raises military tensions over Taiwan, Biden is facing competing political pressures — and taking incoming fire — from all sides as he rolls out his administration’s plan for defense spending next year.

"Given the war in Ukraine, competition with China and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, I'm concerned that the president's proposed defense budget may not fully address the looming threats against our national security and our country's interests abroad," Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., a leader of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, said Wednesday.

Moderate Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., a retired Navy commander whose Norfolk district includes the world’s largest naval base, was less diplomatic.

“I have delayed putting out a statement about the Defense Budget because frankly it would have been mostly full of words you might expect from a Sailor, but here goes: It sucks,” Luria said in a scathing Twitter thread objecting to Biden’s plan to decommission two dozen warships.

“HINT: If you want to grow the Navy, stop decommissioning more ships than you build," she said, adding that the Navy “has no strategy. Stop saying you do, because if you did you would be able to explain how this Fleet size will allow us to defend Taiwan.”

Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., a former Navy helicopter pilot, said she is still reviewing the budget but echoed some of Luria’s comments. “We’re all concerned about ... what the plan is for a more robust fleet,” Sherrill said in an interview.

For moderates like Luria and Sherrill, who represent big military communities and face tough re-election races this fall, criticizing Biden’s budget and defending parochial programs in their districts are smart politics.

While he didn’t go as far as Gottheimer or Luria in bashing the defense budget, moderate Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz., another top GOP target, said he would do everything possible to keep the Pentagon from retiring A-10 Warthog fighter planes in his state; Biden's budget calls for grounding 150 aging aircraft, including 21 A-10s in Indiana.

“I’m going to be strong on the military budget,” O’Halleran said. “We protect our A-10s.”

Record spending 'simply unacceptable'

At the other end of the Democratic spectrum, progressives see this moment — seven months after Biden pulled the last U.S. troops out of Afghanistan — as a major opportunity. They want to cut the Pentagon’s budget and bolster spending on domestic programs to address the Covid pandemic, climate change, the high cost of child care and other issues.

“At a time when we are already spending more on the military than the next 11 countries combined, no we do not need a massive increase in the defense budget,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a liberal icon who is the chair of the Budget Committee, said in a statement.

Three leaders of the House Progressive Caucus issued a joint statement calling it “simply unacceptable” that Biden wants record military spending in a period of Democratic rule after having ending the war in Afghanistan.

Many Democrats have long said the military budget is bloated with wasteful spending to build weapons and equipment that the Pentagon says it doesn’t need but that create jobs in the states and districts of influential lawmakers.

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., a former Progressive Caucus chair, said the U.S. shouldn’t spend so much money building “amphibious vehicles that sink” or F-35 fighter jets with more than 800 deficiencies.

Pocan called for “a more modern perspective of what’s a national security threat,” arguing that the country still perceives defense like it did in the World War II era and should focus more on threats like cyber warfare, climate change and Covid-19.

“We do a lot of foolish spending without real oversight in the defense budget. And we wouldn’t allow that in any other area."

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis.

Asked to respond to the concerns of Luria and other moderate defense hawks, Pocan said some of his colleagues treat the Pentagon budget like a “jobs program” for their districts. He said he, too, faces pressure from companies in his Madison-based district that want a bigger slice of the pie but that caving to them would be the wrong way to look at military spending.

“We need to think of the defense budget not as a jobs program but as a defense budget,” he said, conceding: “It’s hard to get people to do that when their districts are in play.”

Still not enough

Biden’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2023 calls for $813 billion for overall defense spending, about a 4 percent increase from the omnibus spending deal Democrats and Republicans agreed to this month for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

"I’m calling for one of the largest investments in our national security in history," Biden said this week, "with the funds needed to ensure that our military remains the best-prepared, best-trained, best-equipped military in the world."

Republicans say Biden’s proposal would give far too little to the Pentagon when Russia is waging a destructive and bloody campaign in Ukraine, threatening chemical and nuclear attacks and putting the U.S. and its NATO allies on high alert.

“It’s never plussed-up enough with the situation we’ve got, because we don’t know what’s going to escalate from here,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., a member of the Armed Services Committee. “Last year we plussed it up some. With all the problems now, it’s probably got to go a little higher.”

Republicans also argue that Biden’s proposed 4 percent hike would fail to keep pace with inflation, a campaign issue the GOP has been using to hammer the president and vulnerable Democrats heading into the November midterms.

Last week, Republicans on the Senate and House Armed Services committees urged Biden in a letter to boost defense spending 5 percent over the rate of inflation.

“What’s the inflation rate right now, 7 percent or so? So it’s not enough,” Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Armed Services panel, said of Biden’s plan. “This is way low.”

Inflation was up by 7.9 percent in February compared to last year, according to the latest figures from the Labor Department.

But even with the GOP pressure, coupled with criticism from some Democrats, many Democratic moderates and defense hawks appear to be standing by Biden’s budget. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said: “At first blush, it seems reasonable.”

Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, called Biden’s 4 percent hike a “good number” and a “solid proposal.” And Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who serves with Shaheen and King on the Armed Services Committee, said he was “happy with what I saw.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., said: “I think it represents a significant investment.

“In addition to the new investments we have to make, we have to look at some systems where we have to disinvest," he said. "So we’re looking for not only dollars, but effective strategy, effective performance.”