Bush offers flat budget for military

After a political campaign in which he and his running mate accused President Clinton of letting down the nation's defenses and promised that "help is on the way," President Bush presented a five-year military budget Wednesday that barely keeps up with his own estimates of future inflation. If inflation rises slightly above Bush's projections, his annual defense budgets would decline between now and fiscal year 2006.

Besides that potential political vulnerability, Bush now must deal with Democrats armed with the past testimony of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--who said they needed $100 billion more a year than Clinton gave them when he was their commander-in-chief. Bush's numbers show that Clinton's recommended increase of 4.6 percent between fiscal 2001 and fiscal 2002--a hike that Bush adopted--is almost twice as big as any annual hike the new commander is proposing for the U.S. military in subsequent years.

But Bush's defenders in the Pentagon and Congress Wednesday predicted to National Journal News Service that his just-issued defense numbers would be supplanted by bigger ones once the president's proposed tax cut is passed by Congress--or at least well on the way to enactment.

"But numbers are numbers," said one Bush defender, who conceded that the numbers contained in the President's five year plan show little money gain for the armed services beyond FY02.

Specifically, Bush's spending plan calls for annual growth in the Pentagon budget, some of which could be eaten up by inflation, of 2.6 percent between fiscal 2002 and fiscal 2003; 2.7 percent between fiscal 2003 and fiscal 2004; 2.8 percent between fiscal 2004 and fiscal 2005; and 2.8 percent between fiscal 2005 and fiscal 2006. Bush assumes an inflation rate of 2.1 percent for those years.

The Ppresident has said repeatedly that he will not ask for big increases in the defense budget until Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld finishes a series of studies on what the armed services really need in this new millennium--and how they should be structured for the radically changed threats in the post-Cold War world. This intimation of more money later on caused usually hawkish members of Congress to hold their fire when Bush's five-year plan was unveiled Wednesday.

Newly installed House Armed Services Committee Chairman Bob Stump, R-Ariz.--whose committee was at the forefront of congressional panels demanding big increases for defense during the Clinton years, was one of the legislators who seized on the more-money-later possibility, declaring, "The President also noted [in his address to Congress Tuesday night] that after a strategy review, we may need to increase defense spending."

Stump said he expects Bush to send Congress a more detailed defense budget later this year that will address problems in military readiness, quality of life and weapons purchases.

And Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M.--who often called for increased defense during the Clinton administration--contented himself with urging Bush to submit a request for $1.2 billion in emergency funds during the current fiscal year to close the funding gap in military health care.

During his presidential campaign, Bush promised to increase the Pentagon budget by $45 billion over 10 years. The small increases he has just proposed would make good on that pledge, if not expectations of the Joint Chiefs--provided inflation does not wipe them out.

Bush's Democratic rival last year, former Vice President Al Gore, promised to increase defense spending by $100 billion over 10 years. One congressional budget analysis shows that Bush would ask for $1.7 trillion for defense from fiscal 2002 through fiscal 2006--while Clinton, under his last five-year plan, would ask for $1.6 trillion.

During the presidential campaign, Bush and his running mate, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, went far beyond the numbers, and charged that Clinton had mistreated military people by overworking them and allowing their quality of life to deteriorate.

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