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Mar 16, 2015 5:37 PM

GOP weighs increase in war funds to skirt Pentagon limits

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) House Republicans are considering adding tens of billions of dollars to President Barack Obama's request for overseas military operations in an effort to get around tight limits on Pentagon spending. The move comes as Republicans are set to unveil their latest budget plan.

Obama requested $51 billion for Pentagon operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, but GOP aides said Monday party leaders are weighing figures above $90 billion enough to surpass Obama's proposal to spend $38 billion above the limits for the budget year beginning in October.

GOP defense hawks have promised not to support any budget that doesn't at least match Obama's $561 billion request for defense, but a 2011 budget "sequestration" law imposes a $523 billion limit on the defense budget an automatic cut of $54 billion below previously agreed levels.

War spending, however, is outside the limits and offers an easy way around the automatic cuts imposed after the failure of lawmakers to replace sequestration with alternative deficit-cutting moves.

The exact figure has yet to be determined and was still the subject of debate among top House Republicans on Monday.

But the move is likely to rile many conservatives who want to stick with the tight limits on spending.

House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., plans to reveal his 2016 budget blueprint Tuesday.

Price promises to balance the nation's budget within a decade and rein in major programs such as food stamps and Medicare. He also promises no avoid tax increases.

Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said Monday he'd like to swap a 10-year deficit-cutting plan to reverse two years' worth of Pentagon cuts, which total more than $100 billion over 2016-17.

McCain opposes padding accounts for overseas military operations to ease cuts to the Pentagon's core budget.

The chairmen of the House and Senate Budget panels plan to release their budget plans this week the House on Tuesday and the Senate on Wednesday. The nonbinding measure called a budget resolution sets broad parameters on taxes and spending; it requires follow-up legislation later this year to implement its balanced-budget goals, and Republicans are unlikely to take on that task as long as President Barack Obama occupies the Oval Office.

Instead, they will propose major spending cuts to programs such as Medicare, health care subsidies, food stamps and the Medicaid program for the poor and elderly to produce a budget that's balanced. Such cuts, if actually implemented later, would likely slash spending by $5 trillion or so over the coming decade from budgets that are presently on track to spend almost $50 trillion over that timeframe.

In the House, 70 Republicans have signed a letter by Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, pledging their "unwavering support" for Obama's $561 billion defense request instead of the $523 billion amount mandated under the 2011 budget deal. If they line up against Price's budget plan as a bloc, it'll be impossible to pass it.

A bipartisan Senate group, including Armed Services Committee members Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Tim Kaine, D-Va., hopes to develop a package of alternative cuts and, perhaps, new revenues to replace the forced cuts to the Pentagon and nondefense programs. They're hoping to replicate a 2013 budget pact that partially eased the automatic cuts for the 2014-15 budget years.

Defense hawks have long eyed adding additional money to overseas contingency operations, or OCO, accounts that are not bound by the automatic cuts to provide relief to core Pentagon accounts like training, operations and maintenance.

"OCO is a potential source," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.

Meanwhile, Price says his upcoming budget will borrow heavily from those produced by former Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., most notably by envisioning a controversial Medicare plan that would, for people 56 or younger today, transform the system into a voucher-like program that subsidizes purchases of health insurance on the open market.

House Republicans say this "premium support" model would ensure Medicare's viability and spur innovation. Opponents say the subsidies won't keep up with medical inflation and will force people to pay higher out-of-pocket costs and saddle them with health plans that are inferior to traditional Medicare.

Enzi will go in a different direction on Medicare, said GOP aides, forgoing the premium support approach and instead adopting Obama's goal of paring $402 billion from the program over the coming decade though not his lengthy roster of proposals to apply the cuts to health care providers.

Price is also likely to replicate Ryan's approach to cutting Medicaid and food stamps by transforming them from federal programs into wholly state-run programs that receive lump-sum funding from the government. That approach makes it easier to cut these programs without saying how many people would be dropped or how their benefits would be cut.

In the four years that Republicans have controlled the House, they have yet to try to implement their controversial cuts, which was understandable given that Democrats controlled the rest of Washington. But now that Republicans have seized the Senate there's no expectation that they will follow the example of Republicans in 1995 and try to pass real legislation to balance the budget with the certainty that Obama would veto any such measure, as Bill Clinton thwarted the 1995 Newt Gingrich-led drive for a balanced budget.


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