Pentagon planners have built a strong coalition among defense lawmakers against keeping sequestration spending caps on the military next year. But their firepower doesn't seem to stretch far past a small handful of Capitol Hill hearing rooms.
On Tuesday, as the military service secretaries and chiefs railed against the dangers of sequestration to anxious House Armed Services Committee lawmakers, Republicans from the House Budget Committee unveiled their fiscal 2016 spending plans — which keep the caps in place.
The juxtaposition showed that for all the dire warnings coming from defense officials and supporters, congressional leaders appear content to move ahead with reapplying the unpopular federal budget caps, which would spark spending trims that could stretch across every military base and unit.
The budget committee proposal would give $617 billion for the Defense Department's "base budget," but would also add tens of billions more in temporary overseas contingency funding to cover some shortfalls caused by the $523 billion sequestration spending cap.
Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., called that plan a "responsible" approach to ensuring national security without allowing out-of-control government spending.
But defense leaders have warned that any plan that keeps sequestration in place will have devastating effects on military missions and readiness, and have repeatedly implored Congress to find some way to undo the 2011 Budget Control Act that mandates the funding squeeze.
Army Secretary John McHugh called sequestration "an enemy at home" as dangerous as any overseas threat facing the services.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said the caps mean fewer ships, fewer resources and reduced flexibility.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said sequestration "is going to place American lives at risk, both at home and abroad."
The White House requested $561 billion in base defense spending next year, $38 billion above the sequestration caps.
Total defense spending is less than the Price plan, with only $51 billion in war funding, but White House and Pentagon officials have insisted their plan is better suited for the long-term health of the military.
The White House proposal — and alternatives floated by House and Senate hawks, which add several billion to that total — is based on a repeal of sequestration, something for which neither Democratic nor Republican leaders have offered any new compromises to fix.
Several armed services committee members asked whether they or Pentagon planners were to blame for that lack of progress, signaling that almost four years of lobbying by both groups has done little to sway politicians intent on reining in federal spending.
"Our colleagues don't seem to understand what we're concerned about," said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala. "They're not hearing that the sky is falling."
Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, put it more bluntly: "The more we talk about sequestration in this room, the less we win."
Lawmakers did find a temporary compromise to the budget caps over the last two fiscal years, and leaders from the armed services committees insist they're still hopeful that a longer-term solution can be found before the caps resume in effect this October.
But representatives on Tuesday said that will require better explanation of the national security risk to all of Congress. Pentagon officials indicated that they've laid out the danger as clearly as they can.
"Missions will take us longer, it will cost us lives and create more injuries," Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno said. "We're mortgaging our future to barely meet today's needs."
The proposal that Republicans floated Tuesday got an initially lukewarm reception from the Pentagon's top money manager. Defense Department Comptroller Mike McCord told a conference of defense industry officials in Washington Tuesday that it was a short-term, makeshift solution to the problem.
While the proposed budget and its expanded overseas contingency operations money might get DoD through the next fiscal year, it will it will not resolve the uncertainty for Pentagon planners who will be unsure moving forward whether "we are going to live with the law, get what we want or have all of our money shoved into OCO."
"It really almost guarantees we won't have an efficient way to plan for [fiscal] 2017," McCord said.
Staff writer Andrew Tilghman contributed to this report