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GOP lawmakers up in arms over leaked Pentagon memo

Internal document suggests strategy for playing ‘hardball’ in fight over Republican defense spending proposal

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Associated Press/Photo by Susan Walsh

GOP lawmakers up in arms over leaked Pentagon memo

House and Senate Republicans are blasting an internal Pentagon memo that recommends “hardball” tactics to undermine House Speaker Paul Ryan’s defense spending bill.

The memo, obtained by Politico, recommends several tactics, including exploiting differences between House and Senate versions of the spending bill, “capitalizing on [the] discomfort” of a key Republican congressman, and using the threat of a presidential veto as a “weapon.”

“For this administration, it’s always politics first, even at the Pentagon,” Ryan said in a written statement issued Tuesday, calling the memo “shameless.” “It threatens more than five decades of bipartisan cooperation to enact a national defense bill for our troops. The men and women who defend our country deserve better.”

The focus of the controversy is the Republican-led House proposal to get around the defense budget caps by using $18 billion from the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account to fund needed military readiness and modernization improvements. Such a move would fund the OCO account only through the end of April instead of the end of September 2017.

The Pentagon memo calls this move a “gimmick,” and in an Office of Management and Budget memo earlier this year, the Obama administration strongly criticized the approach, saying it would cut off “critical funding for wartime operations.”

But some defense budget experts, while acknowledging the House proposal is a gimmick of sorts, think the risk to troops in combat is low.

“No one believes that Congress will actually leave troops in Afghanistan without funding next April,” said Heritage Foundation defense analyst Justin Johnson, writing in the Daily Signal. “This gimmick isn’t great, but the next presidential administration and the next Congress will have plenty of time to address the spending gap.”

Johnson noted the House Republican budget proposal was an attempt to find a way around a Democrat-led effort to link military funding to unrelated domestic funding.

“The whole reason that the Pentagon is preparing to ‘play hardball’ is because the administration doesn’t want a higher defense budget without commensurate dollar-for-dollar increases for domestic priorities,” he said.

The memo, written by Pentagon comptroller Mike McCord and assistant secretary of Defense for legislative affairs Stephen Hedger, laid out a strategy for exploiting differing views among Republican legislators regarding the House budget proposal. For example, it suggested Defense Secretary Ash Carter actively engage with Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Thad Cochran, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. The Senate version of the defense spending bill did not include the OCO tactic.

“This administration knows no depths they won’t plummet politicizing defense,” McCain told The Hill on Tuesday.

The memo also described House Armed Services Committee chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, as “still smarting” from last year’s budget battle in which the administration vetoed the defense policy bill.

“Even if they do a memo like this every year, pieces of this are surprising,” Johnson told The Hill, suggesting its “aggressive tone” might undermine the relationship between the Pentagon and Republican lawmakers.

“It certainly doesn’t help,” he said. “There’s already been tension between Republicans in Congress and the Pentagon. At this point, it certainly probably makes it worse for the time being, and it certainly could increase odds that Congress sends a bill over that gets vetoed.”

Michael Cochrane Michael is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent.


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