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Defense officials ask lawmakers for base closures, health reform

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Defense officials urged lawmakers Tuesday to consider reforming the TRICARE military health care program and shutting down underused bases around the country — moves that would be unpopular among pro-military voters and localities dependent on commerce from the facilities.

“What we’re proposing is modest increases in the enrollment fees ... it doesn’t affect any of the active duty members, mainly those would be affected in the still-working age after you leave the military before 65,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testified at the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee Tuesday on the fiscal 2014 defense budget request.

“If we don’t do that and we have to, say, cut forces to offset it, it’s about 25,000 troops,” said Pentagon Comptroller Robert F. Hale, who testified alongside Mr. Hagel.

Currently, health care makes up 10 percent of the defense budget, and could grow to as much as 20 percent, Mr. Hale said. Retirees paid as much as 27 percent of the costs when the program began, but now pay only 11 percent, he said.

The $605.4 billion budget request ould impose moderate cuts to next year’s defense budget, $34 billion instead of the $52 billion that would be cut under the spending reduction plan known as sequestration, defense officials said.

The $34 billion reduction would come from health care reform, base closures, a slowdown in military construction, restructuring and terminating some weapons programs, and reducing lower-priority programs, Mr. Hagel said.

“The president’s FY 2014 budget replaces sequestration and gives the department the time and the flexibility — the time and flexibility to plan and implement spending reductions wisely and responsibly,” the defense secretary said.

Under sequestration, the Pentagon is supposed to cut nearly $500 billion from budget over the next decade, but defense officials say such cuts will leave the military unable to confront future threats.

“We continue to curtail or cancel training and exercises across all the services and for units that are not preparing to deploy. As a result, we are less ready every day for an unforeseen crisis or a contingency operation. In effect, we’re foreclosing on options,” said Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who testified with Mr. Hagel and Mr. Hale.

“We simply can’t afford to postpone essential reforms to compensation and health care. Both should be allowed to grow more gradually. We should stop pouring money into excess facilities and unwanted weapons,” Gen. Dempsey said.

It is not clear whether passing a 2014 budget would undo sequestration for next year.

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