Defense Republicans in the House are seeking to overturn deep, automatic defense spending cuts as part of the debate on whether to authorize military force against Syria, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Wednesday.
Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R., Calif.), the chairman, said in an interview that he is "pushing as hard as I can" to reverse the mandatory defense spending cuts.
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"My concern is the readiness of our troops, not just on this [Syria] mission, but on the next one and the next one," McKeon told the Free Beacon, adding that the debate over the use of force on Syria is "the best chance we have since this mess started" to reverse the cuts known as sequestration.
McKeon said he told President Barack Obama during a White House meeting this week that it is "immoral to keep asking the troops to do more with less" and that "it’s incumbent on us to get rid of this sequestration."
The president responded that the operation is not expected to be very expensive.
However, any time military forces are used for even limited operation, costs quickly can reach the tens of millions, to hundreds of millions, of dollars.
McKeon said between 90 and 100 percent of the members of the House Armed Services Committee will support ending sequestration, and one way to do that would be to link any authorization on the use of force to legislation ending sequestration.
"I have the most leverage right now than I’m ever going to have," he said.
A White House spokeswoman had no immediate comment on whether the president is prepared to negotiate an end to sequestration in exchange for Republican support for a resolution approving military action in Syria.
The administration has said it is willing to modify its draft resolution on the issue. The Senate drafted its own resolution on Tuesday, limiting any military action to 60 days.
The U.S. military is facing a significant decline in readiness and personnel and weapons capabilities as a result of steep defense cuts over the past five years.
A total of $487 billion was cut over the next several years as part of measured reductions in defense spending.
However, Congress mandated an additional $600 billion in across-the-board defense and national security reductions during a 2011 budget agreement.
McKeon said the military chiefs are struggling with budget shortfalls and have lacked "certainty" on funding. "We are spending over $600 billion a year and they don’t know what they’re going to have in the next year," he said. "It’s crazy."
According to joint testimony Aug.1 by Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "the blunt, arbitrary, across-the-board spending cuts we experienced in fiscal year 2013 have been extremely disruptive to every Defense Department program and have had a devastating impact on readiness."
Fewer than half the Air Force’s front line fighters are currently deemed combat ready, the Army has cancelled combat training for brigade combat teams, and the Navy has canceled multiple ship deployments.
Unless the spending problems are fixed, Carter and Winnefeld predicted that the Pentagon would be forced to make "sharp cuts with far-reaching consequences that will limit combat power, reduce readiness, and irrevocably alter the way the military supports the national security interests of the United States."
McKeon said he concerned by recent statements by the president and secretary of state that appear to undermine claims that the Syria operation will not involve ground troops or "boots on the ground" in Syria.
Kerry said during testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday that he would not rule sending ground forces in the Syrian conflict. "I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to the president that might secure our country," he said.
In later testimony Kerry sought to correct the comment that he said was based on a "hypothetical" and he insisted there will be no ground troops.
Obama spoke forcefully during a press conference in Sweden Wednesday about the need to take the limited military action "even one without boots on the ground."
"I think America also recognizes that if the international community fails to maintain certain norms, standards and laws governing how countries interact and how people are treated, that over time, this world becomes less safe," Obama said.
McKeon said the Kerry and Obama comments are an indication that "they are starting to waffle" on the promise of not sending ground troops to Syria.
"Once we get started on this path, this could be another escalation, as we’ve seen in the past in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. "And if that is the case they will come back and seek a supplemental. We’ve got to stop robbing Peter to pay Paul."
"You can’t operate an organization as large as the military like that."
Asked about a potential for U.S. military escalation in the region after a Syria military action, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also did not rule out U.S. escalation after limited Syrian strikes.
Dempsey told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday that "I can never drive the risk of escalation to zero, but I think that the limited purpose, the partnerships we have in the region, the contributions that we'll seek from other I think begins to limit that risk."
McKeon did not answer directly when asked if he will support or oppose the resolution on the use of force Syria. "I want to see us get rid of sequestration. I want us to give some certainty to the military," he said.
In addition to sequestration, McKeon is said to be concerned about the apparent disconnect between political and military objectives in a Syria strike. The administration has said the action will not be about "regime change." Yet its stated policy is to oust Syrian leader Bashar al Assad. Deterring Syria’s use of further chemical attacks also has not been clearly outlined, according to a McKeon aide. And, the administration’s legal justification for action also is unclear.
McKeon said in the interview that the president recently informed Congress that he will not allow troops to receive the 1.8 percent pay raise as promised. Instead, the pay raise will be capped at 1 percent.
"I think we have to come back to making sure the troops have what they need," he said.
Many members of Congress are uncertain on support for the administration’s planned attacks on Syria, McKeon said. Members will probably not make up their minds on supporting or opposing the resolution on the use of force until shortly before the vote, he said.
A vote is not expected for at least a week.
However, McKeon said there is widespread support on the Armed Services Committee for ending sequestration.
Even if a deal was reached to end sequestration, McKeon said he is not sure all committee members would support strikes on Syria.
"It would help get their votes if they could be assured they would get rid of sequestration," McKeon said. "I think it would be very, very helpful."
There are several legislative battles in the coming days. Congress will debate a continuing resolution on funding the government, and legislation on the debt ceiling, in addition to a Syria resolution.
"This is a good time to address this problem," McKeon said of sequestration. "I don’t care how we do it, but we’ve got to get this sequestration off the backs of the military."
A Republican House aide said the House is divided on a resolution authorizing force against Syria, with both Democrats and Republicans split.
During the recent meeting between Obama and House Republicans, the president said the Syria mission would be similar to Libya operations in 2011, which set a new administration policy dubbed "leading from behind" by supporting rebel forces and enlisting the support of European nations in military support actions.
However, the aide said Libya’s ouster of strongman Muammar Qaddafi has turned North Africa into "an al Qaeda safe haven."
"It hard to argue that that was cheap," the aide said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi "is going to have to perform very well to get Democratic votes for the president," the aid said.
As for Republicans, "the GOP hawk caucus" will likely use the debate over Syria to end sequestration, the aide said.