Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) said on Monday that he will support a Republican-authored budget that leaves spending caps on defense in place but will work to lift them later this year.
In an interview with the Free Beacon, Cotton noted that the emerging GOP budget proposal boosts emergency war spending to help pay for training troops. The House budget unveiled by Republican leaders last week maintained sequestration caps on defense spending that would provide the Pentagon with a base budget of $523 billion, a level that military leaders have warned is too low. But it increased the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund to $94 billion as a stopgap measure.
Defense hawks in the Senate were able to add $38 billion to that chamber’s OCO fund late last week to bring defense spending in line with the House budget.
Cotton said bolstering the OCO account is not his "preferred approach" because it will not reverse the overall decline in the number of troops and pilots in the military. Defense leaders also need more funding certainty to plan upgrades to equipment programs or purchase new ones.
"I will be working, along with many of my colleagues, as we go forward this year well after we pass the budget, which is the first step in the process, to try to lift the sequestration caps on defense and get the defense budget back where it needs to be," he said.
Defense spending should be dramatically increased in the long term, Cotton said. He related that when Ronald Reagan became president, he worked with congressional Democrats to ramp up military funding from a "dangerously low" 5 percent of GDP to 6 percent.
"If we spent 5 percent of our national income today on our defense budget, which Reagan and congressional Democrats said was dangerously low, we would be spending $885 billion on defense," he said.
Cotton said a bigger defense budget is needed to respond to the manifold threats to U.S. security and interests, most prominently Iran. The freshman senator elicited criticism from the Obama administration when he led 46 of his Republican colleagues in sending a letter to Tehran’s leaders about the ongoing nuclear negotiations.
The missive declared that a future presidential administration and Congress could revoke a potential deal.
Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, responded to the GOP letter by claiming that reneging on the deal would violate international law—a claim refuted by legal experts.
"Their response indicated the need for the letter in the first place," Cotton said.
"To the extent that that letter put the details of the president’s Iran negotiations and deal front and center, I think that’s a healthy public debate for our country to have," he added.
According to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 71 percent of Americans said the nuclear talks would not stymie Iran’s efforts to develop an atomic weapon.
Cotton also raised concerns about reports that a potential nuclear agreement would allow Iran to keep about 6,000 centrifuges for uranium enrichment, higher than previous demands by U.S. officials. Tehran is also notorious for concealing its nuclear facilities, such as the one at Fordow.
"If Iran does not have covert nuclear facilities, it would be the first time in a long time that that’s the case," Cotton said. "So yes, they could certainly cheat on any nuclear deal."