Senate panel backs $25B Pentagon budget boost

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The Senate Armed Services Committee has voted to boost the budget top line of the National Defense Authorization Act by $25 billion during its closed-door markup, a bipartisan rebuke of President Joe Biden’s $715 billion blueprint.

The vote drew support from Democrats after Republican senators telegraphed in recent weeks that they would seek to boost the overall defense budget. The vote was announced Thursday by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, in a call with reporters.

The proposed increase is a bipartisan blow to Biden’s spending plans, as well as to advocates who sought to curb historically high levels of defense spending. The increase could shake up budget talks significantly with House Democrats already endorsing Biden’s $715 billion level for the base Pentagon budget in their annual defense spending bill.

While the base Pentagon budget request is for $715 billion, the entire proposal, which includes Department of Energy funding for nuclear activities, comes out to $753 billion. The fiscal 2021 enacted budget was $741 billion total, with $704 billion for the Pentagon. Despite the increase from last year, GOP defense hawks have assailed Biden’s proposed Pentagon budget for not keeping up with inflation.

An increase to the defense budget is far from a done deal. The House and Senate must agree on a final defense policy bill, which likely won’t happen until later this year. Even then, the NDAA only authorizes, and does not allocate, funding. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees will have to agree to go along with the proposal for the increase to become a reality.

The committee approved its version of the defense bill Wednesday evening behind closed doors.

Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed had not said how much military spending his committee’s bill would endorse ahead of the markup.

Republicans have called for annual defense spending increases of 3 to 5 percent above inflation. They’ve slammed the Biden administration for requesting an effectively flat budget, which they contend won’t help the military modernize to meet growing threats posed by China.

GOP members of the Armed Services Committee have argued the Pentagon is being left behind while Biden and Democrats look to boost spending for most other federal agencies. Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) foreshadowed the agreement at a subcommittee meeting on Tuesday when he speculated some Democrats could join the effort.

"They’re cutting defense spending [in] real numbers," Sullivan said of the Biden administration’s budget. "We need to change that. That’s our oversight responsibility and I hope we can make that a bipartisan vote in this committee to send a message [that we] shouldn’t be cutting the Department of Defense’s budget, especially not now."

But with the committee evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, GOP defense hawks would need to peel off only one Democratic senator to win key votes.

Defense legislation also can’t pass the 50-50 Senate without Republican votes, giving them significant leverage over the content of any bill, including the must-pass military policy measure.

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