Battle Stations! The Coming Combat Over Defense Spending

After years of dining on Hamburger Helper, the Pentagon is about to rediscover red meat. Concerns about the military are rising, spurred by reports of aging weapons and underpaid, poorly trained troops. With U.S. forces set for a long and expensive mission in Iraq, Republican hawks and White House budgeteers agree that it's time to boost defense outlays. The likely result: the first big Pentagon spending hike in a decade.

But in Washington, the straightest distance between two points is often a circuitous squiggle. Before the brass gets its guns, President Clinton and Republicans on the Hill must battle over how much money is provided and who gets the credit--or the blame--for seeking it. The White House will fork over some extra dough. But first it will depict the GOP as shilling for arms merchants at the expense of social programs.

Commander-in-Chief Clinton wants to provide more money partly because it would be politically unwise to buck the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who have taken the unusual step of publicly lobbying Congress for an increase. But Clinton's opening bid will be on the low side. In the February budget, he's expected to propose about a $10 billion increase over the $262 billion projected for fiscal 2000 military spending. If critics say that's stingy, he'll argue that lower inflation gives the Pentagon more purchasing power. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen previewed the preemptive strategy on Dec. 21 when he unveiled a plan to boost military pay and retirement benefits.

GUNS AND BUTTER. Although Cohen's move was well received on Capitol Hill, Republicans say the military needs a lot more firepower to cope with global threats. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who steers hundreds of millions in weapons contracts to his home state of Mississippi, wants to see Clinton's defense bet--and double it to $20 billion.

Why bicker over an arms gap during peacetime? GOP pols think Democrats are vulnerable to charges that they undermined America's security with post-cold-war defense cuts. So the White House isn't taking any chances. Clintonites also reckon that a pro-defense stance insulates Vice-President Al Gore against assertions in the 2000 Presidential race that he's a military softie. The goal, says an Administration aide, is "to prevent Republicans from getting a wedge issue."

But under budget rules, the $20 billion boost that the GOP favors must come from domestic spending. That puts the Prez in a good position to win the battle for public opinion in this guns-vs.-butter spat. Some Republicans already are flinching at the coming attack. "He'll say we're trying to take money out of the mouths of children and accuse us of busting the [spending] caps," frets a Senate GOP aide.

Exactly. Clinton also will use his bully pulpit to assert that his budget addresses the Pentagon's most immediate needs--military pay and readiness, not the costly hardware of which Lott & Co. are so fond. The White House blitz "is going to make it very painful for the Republicans," says one defense industry executive.

But after this PR offensive, will G.I. Bill stick to his guns? Don't bet on it. Lobbyists predict that the Prez will cut an 11th-hour deal for a $15 billion defense boost. The price? The GOP gives him some of the extra money he wants for education and a handful of other domestic programs. Whatever the final figure, expect Clinton to claim he's taking care of both America's children and its defense needs--while hammering the GOP for budget profligacy. Still wonder why Republicans voted to impeach him?

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