Sgt. Amber I. Smith/Army

Mattis on 2018 Budget: ‘We Have Got to Get a Bill Passed’

Congress is working up budgets that bust spending caps, with little evidence of a deal to avoid automatic cuts.

The Trump administration and congressional GOP leaders say they want to give the military a budget boost in 2018, but the spending bills they are drawing up are so far beyond legal limits that they’ll be automatically chopped back down — unless a much broader budget deal can be worked out on Capitol Hill. What does Defense Secretary Jim Mattis make of all this?

He just wants to know how much he has to spend.

“What we need most of all is a degree of predictability to this budget and that means we have got to get a bill passed,” Mattis said Friday during an impromptu conversation with several reporters at the Pentagon.

That was the former Marine’s response to this question: how much confidence do you have that Congress will be able to make a deal to exceed the limits imposed by the 2010 Budget Control Act?

The Trump administration has requested $639.1 billion for the military in 2018. That includes $574.5 billion in the base budget and $64.6 billion in funds for Overseas Contingency Operations — what used to be called the war supplemental. But the base budget is is $52 billion beyond the cap set by the BCA — the OCO fund is exempt — and the bills that Congress is working on are bigger yet.

Here’s the problem: if Congress passes a budget above that cap without repealing or modifying the Budget Control Act, funds are cut from across all Pentagon coffers. This happened in 2013, and military leaders say they are still feeling the effects. In several other years, deals have been cut that allowed spending beyond the limits.

In meetings with lawmakers in recent weeks, Mattis said, Republicans and Democrats “all recognize we need to rebuild the military.”

“I did not confront adversarial challenges that we need to downsize the military budget or that we don’t have gaps in our readiness,” he said. “We’re working all of those details out right now to include responding to requests for information on specific things.”

“I’m very comfortable with the priorities assigned by the House and Senate right now.”

On Friday, the House on Friday passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act — the defense policy bill — approving $696 billion for the Pentagon. The Senate Armed Services Committee has approved a $700 billion NDAA. Both of those bills include about $30 billion for nuclear weapons, funds that are overseen by the Energy Department.

The House Appropriations Committee has approved a bill that includes $658.1 billion for the Pentagon. The Senate has not yet taken up the measure.

So how do congressional leaders think these spending plans will evade the roughly $523 billion limit on the base budget? One possible solution: cram the excess into OCO.

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