Senate defense panel faces uphill battle in ditching debt ceiling caps

Senate defense panel faces uphill battle in ditching debt ceiling caps

The bipartisan duo leading the Senate defense spending panel faces an uphill battle in their bid to increase the fiscal 2025 military budget beyond the $895 billion cap imposed by last year’s debt ceiling deal.

Senate defense appropriations Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., and the top Republican appropriator, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, made the case for a higher FY25 defense top line during a Wednesday hearing with Gen. CQ Brown, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

“If we’re going to invest in future technologies, this number has to be bigger,” said Tester. “The military services and combatant commands are telling us they’re having unfunded priorities in excess of $20 billion. The price of fuel is much higher. Our military is engaged in operations around the world.”

Biden’s $895 billion defense budget request for FY25 matches the cap laid out in last year’s debt ceiling deal, which allows for a 1% increase in military spending over FY24. The Pentagon’s share of that total is $850 billion for FY25. By contrast, inflation rose 3.4% in 2023, according to the Consumer Price Index.

“We must be clear eyed that this budget request would represent a real cut in funding for the Department of Defense as it fails to keep pace with inflation,” said Collins, noting a $22.5 billion yearly increase would be needed to keep up with must-pay costs like fuel, military and civilian pay and medical care. “The president’s request shifts funding away from modernization, readiness and procurement to cover these must-pay costs.”

“If the world were becoming safer, then perhaps such a reduction could be absorbed with little risk to national security. But unfortunately that is not the world in which we live.”

Still, it’s unclear whether a bid to revisit the debt ceiling spending caps could win enough support in the Senate, let alone the House.

“The 1% increase provided for FY25 under the caps is as inadequate for non-defense spending as it is for defense,” said Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash. “When it comes to additional resources above the caps…I’m going to insist on parity for non-defense spending.”

Tester told Defense News “we’ve got to influence” Senate leaders, including Collins and Murray, “to figure out a way to raise the caps.”

“Let’s get a budget that works both near-term – and this one does work near-term – it’s the long-term stuff that’s going to get short-changed and it’s going to cost more money the later we go,” said Tester. “The negotiations on the budget caps are still in flux.”

Brown noted at the Senate hearing that the debt ceiling caps has forced the military to “defer” some modernization priorities.

“I want to make sure that we actually have that capability and capacity to modernize,” said Brown. “I also want to have a strong defense industrial base so we can produce those munitions and capabilities.”

Austin acknowledged that the debt ceiling caps impede modernization goals but defended the Pentagon’s budget request as “aligned to our strategy.”

“We made tough but responsible decisions that prioritize near-term readiness, modernization of the joint force and support for our troops and their families,” said Austin. “Our approach dials back some of the near-term modernization for programs not set to come on line until the 2030s.”

Last year, Senate defense appropriators unsuccessfully sought to use emergency provisions laid out in the debt ceiling deal to increase defense spending by $8 billion above the caps. But the bipartisan effort ran into resistance in the Republican-held House, which resisted changes to the caps.

Congress ultimately passed an $886 billion base defense budget for FY24 in line with the debt ceiling caps. Total FY24 defense spending came to $953 billion after Congress passed a massive foreign aid bill for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan last month.

“I think this budget is too low,” House Appropriations Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., said last month. “I think that’s been consistently true with the administration. I also recognize we’re under the constraints of the [debt ceiling deal], and that’s going to make it difficult for us to do some things I think we need to do.”

Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.

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