Armed Services leaders warn Gates about halting work on programs

Setting up a potential clash, top Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee on Monday urged Defense Secretary Robert Gates to halt plans to shut down work on at least two major weapons programs until lawmakers have an opportunity to grill the Pentagon on its decisions.

In a letter to Gates, Armed Services Chairman Howard (Buck) McKeon, R-Calif., and his top lieutenants said they are worried defense officials will issue stop-work orders on pricey Pentagon programs before Congress has the chance to exercise its power of the purse.

"Our immediate concern is that the Defense Department will take precipitous action in the near term that would undercut Congress' ability to pass judgment on the recommendations," according to the letter obtained by National Journal Daily.

Specifically, they say they are worried the Marine Corps will stop work on the $15 billion Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program, a General Dynamics amphibious assault vehicle that weighs in at 80,000 pounds and can skim across the sea at 25 knots. They also raised concerns about ending the Army's surface-launched advanced medium-range air-to-air missile developed by Raytheon, saying it is unclear why the Pentagon opted to halt the program after completing development.

"These questions require diligent consideration prior to the department taking action that would adversely impact the program in the coming weeks," the lawmakers wrote. "We specifically request that no 'stop work' orders be issued until our committee has the opportunity to fully examine all of the efficiencies you have proposed."

Gates announced plans to terminate the EFV and SLAMRAAM programs January 6 as part of a sweeping effort to trim Pentagon spending.

At the core of that initiative are plans to slash $78 billion in defense spending over the next five years while also finding more than $100 billion in unnecessary costs and redirecting those to higher-priority items within the department.

Defense programs -- many of which employ thousands in several different states -- have strong constituencies on Capitol Hill, making it difficult for department officials to convince Congress to terminate them. The EFV, in particular, has support from key lawmakers, including McKeon and Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee Chairman Todd Akin, R-Mo.

Despite the odds against him, Gates has a surprisingly successful track record cutting programs over the last three years, winning far more battles on Capitol Hill than he has lost. And with budget-conscious Republicans in the House open to the idea of curbing Pentagon spending, the popular Defense secretary might get his way again this year.

"No one can defend the expenditure of every dollar and cent over at the Pentagon," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

McKeon and other Republicans on his panel, however, have been more critical of exposing the military to the types of budget cuts affecting other federal agencies and have vowed to scrub the Pentagon's fiscal year 2012 budget request, due to Congress next month.

Gates and his deputies will have ample opportunities to sell their plan to lawmakers over the next several weeks -- starting Wednesday when Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn and the No. 2 officers from each of the military services testify before the House Armed Services Committee on their "efficiency" plans.

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