- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2000

Republicans who want to trump President Clinton's Pentagon budget increase with an election-year increase of their own face a number of roadblocks, congressional sources say.

Republican staffers, mindful that watching over the U.S. military is a bread-and-butter issue for conservative voters, are doing the math, but do not like the numbers.

"It is the issue in town right now," said a senior congressional staffer. "Nobody knows how to get home from where we are."

Mr. Clinton is asking for $622 billion in so-called discretionary spending for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1: $305 billion for the Pentagon and related Energy Department spending, and $317 billion in non-defense programs.

Total increase: nearly 10 percent above this year's plan, according to the Senate Budget Committee.

But last year's Republican budget resolution put total spending in 2001 at $540 billion. This means Republicans would have to cut domestic spending by a whopping $82 billion triggering a big fight with the White House before they could even start thinking of adding to Pentagon programs.

"That's the box Republicans have themselves in," the senior staffer said.

But other aides say ignore the $540 billion number. It was based on caps in the 1997 balanced-budget agreement that will not be followed this year because of the expanding projected surplus.

"We won't be at the 540 level," said a Senate aide. "That was assuming the caps. I think everyone realizes that is unrealistic. This year our goal is to set a realistic number."

The real cap has become not spending the surplus share devoted to Social Security.

Congressional Republicans and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the GOP presidential front-runner, are making increased arms spending one of their top issues. They accuse Mr. Clinton of sending troops on a multitude of overseas deployments while shrinking the budget. The result, they say, is reduced readiness in the forms of spare-parts shortages, worn-out vehicles and aircraft, and recruiting and retention gaps.

Republicans in Congress have responded by increasing the Pentagon budget the past two years and coaxing Mr. Clinton to propose increases of his own.

But for 2001, the GOP may not be able to top the president's $305 billion offer.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, surveyed caucus members last month. Surprisingly, defense ranked below Social Security, tax cuts, paying off the debt and education among a majority of members.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, Virginia Republican, has asked the Senate Budget Committee to add more than $3 billion "at a minimum" to Mr. Clinton's $305 billion proposal.

"The impact on the readiness of our military forces because of the number of contingency operations in which our military is engaged worldwide is of great concern," Mr. Warner told Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican, in a Feb. 25 letter. "We have had troops in Bosnia for over four years and there is no end in sight for this operation, nor the operation in Kosovo or [the Persian Gulf]."

Mr. Warner said that while the Clinton administration has finally reached the coveted arms-procurement level of $60 billion, the Congressional Budget Office says $30 billion more is needed to fully to modernize the force.

Several sources said there appears to be a growing consensus to accept the president's defense number with a minor add-on.

Continuing readiness problems would be addressed in the current 2000 budget. There are extra non-Social Security surplus funds that could be added when the House Appropriations Committee takes up supplemental spending this week. This way, Republicans could argue they have increased overall spending above the commander-in-chief's request.

It may placate voters, but not the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They have testified the troops need $24 billion above this year's budget and Mr. Clinton's proposal for 2001.

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