Hunter supported a bipartisan move to authorize an additional 30,000 soldiers and 9,000 Marines in last year's defense spending bill to help ease the strain on a land force that has been in constant deployment since the fall of 2001. This year, however, he does not want to set unattainable end-strength goals.
"If you increase forces beyond recruitment capability ... then you simply establish a hollow increase," Hunter said in an interview last week. Congress made "pretty substantial increases last year in the Marines and the Army. They need to work on making those solid and sustainable."
Despite widespread advertising campaigns and incentive programs, the Army has fallen behind its recruitment goals for three straight months; the Marine Corps also is behind schedule and has not met its target recruiting numbers since late last year. And National Guard and Reserve recruitment is on a similar decline.
But with more than 155,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq and Afghanistan, several lawmakers -- particularly Democrats -- are expected to renew the battle over the military's troop levels as lawmakers begin marking up the defense authorization bill this week.
More than three dozen House Democrats signed onto legislation last month to temporarily increase troop strength across the military, but that bill has yet to draw any Republican co-sponsors. Still, Democrats might attempt to push through troop increases as amendments to the authorization bill, congressional sources said.
Armed Services ranking member Ike Skelton, D-Mo., has signed onto a bill to increase end-strength that was sponsored by Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., a longtime proponent of end-strength increases.
Skelton, who has pushed for end-strength increases for several years, wants not only to see growth in the size of the force, but also to pay for it out of the traditional defense budget. Democrats have long been opposed to using emergency supplemental packages to pay for additional troops, arguing that it is a cost the Defense Department can anticipate and predict.
"We paid for it the wrong way," Skelton said.
The military has countered that increased personnel bills are tied to ongoing operations and, as such, should be paid out of the supplemental. Every 10,000 soldiers cost roughly $1.2 billion annually, a cost shift that might throw service dollars out of whack.
The target in such a move would be the Pentagon's weapons-buying accounts, the only true discretionary funding in the Pentagon budget
"It further exacerbates acquisition," said Steve Kosiak, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Already, personnel costs rival only research and development as the fastest-growing piece of the defense budget, he added.
In addition to possible end-strength boosts, Democrats plan to support military family benefit enhancements during authorization markups, Skelton said. In the last two years, lawmakers have advocated expansions to Guard and Reserve benefits, particularly their access to the military's Tricare system. About 20 percent of the Guard and reservists do not have access to civilian healthcare plans.
Last year, authorizers mandated major changes to Tricare that would expand it to reserve-component forces and their families for up to eight years, depending on the length and frequency of deployments. Before that, these troops were eligible for Tricare only immediately before, during and shortly after activation.