GOP senators seek more defense funds


WASHINGTON -- Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee have called for a $270 billion defense budget for next year, $14 billion above President Clinton's proposal.

The extra money would forestall another decline in what the Republicans regard as an underfunded Pentagon budget that is harming military readiness and hampering weapons modernization.

In a letter dated Wednesday to the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, New Mexico Republican Pete V. Domenici, the 11 Republicans on the Armed Services Committee said the increase was "the only prudent course" to counter the "woefully deficient" readiness of U.S. forces to enter combat.

Under the Clinton plan, the defense budget would have fallen slightly in 1996. The Republican increase would reverse the decline and compensate for $6 billion worth of inflation next year.

"It's the best we can hope for," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a Republican hawk who signed the letter. "It will stop the slide."

Even as the senators proposed the increased funding, members of the House National Security Committee were warned of a multibillion-dollar shortfall in defense funding over the next five years.

Estimates of the mismatch between planned operations and available money ranged from the Congressional Budget Office's estimate of $47 billion to the General Accounting Office's $150 billion. Officials from both research organizations attributed the shortfall to underestimations of inflation, the cost of weapons and pay increases.

The Army reported last fall that three of its 12 divisions were not combat-ready. There have also been widespread reports of disruptions of training schedules and other operations because of a lack of funding. In addition, the Defense Department has had to stretch out the development of several weapons systems so that money can be diverted to short-term needs.

Pentagon officials attribute the funding shortfall to Congress' failure to approve timely supplemental payments for unforeseen expenses, like the humanitarian mission to Rwanda and the reintroduction of democracy to Haiti. They maintain that the readiness problem is being rapidly overcome and that the defense budget, while tight, is sufficient to cover normal operations.

Adm. William Owens, deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday: "We are satisfied that given the deck of cards that we have been given, the money we've been given to spend . . . that this balance is about right."

But Sen. Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican who is the panel's chairman, said: "The pace at which all the services are now operating exceeds the pace of operations at the height of the Cold War, yet they are being funded at lower levels."

Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who is a hawk on the committee, said the cost of the overseas missions of U.S. troops had forced the administration to dip into funds earmarked for training, equipment, ammunition and fuel.

The Republican senators, in their letter to the Budget Committee chairman, wrote: "If we are to maintain a strong national defense, the defense budget must be increased to achieve an appropriate balance among readiness, modernization and quality of life programs."

To address those issues, Mr. Clinton last month proposed to increase defense spending over the next six years by $25 billion, with $2 billion of it to be spent next year. The Republicans said that was not enough.

They said the inflation adjustment should be made for each of the next five years to enable the Pentagon to meet its basic goal of being able to fight two nearly simultaneous regional conflicts. Under the Clinton plan, defense funding would drop for the next two years, level off in 1998, then start to increase in 1999.

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