WASHINGTON — Lawmakers are preparing to slash the Pentagon budget by an additional $4 billion to $5 billion, even as Defense Secretary Dick Cheney is weighing $6.3 billion in cuts from the 1990 defense budget to meet President Bush's target of a freeze in defense spending, Pentagon and congressional sources said Wednesday.
The new cuts mean that military spending would suffer a real decline for the fifth consecutive year after a massive run-up early in the Ronald Reagan Administration.
Cheney vowed last week to fight "as aggressively as I know how" against further cuts in defense spending, but it appears that Democrats in Congress will turn a deaf ear as they try to trim the federal deficit and preserve popular domestic programs.
The congressional action likely would force Cheney to reduce military manpower or cancel weapons systems, or both, alternatives that the Pentagon has so far resisted.
The Pentagon's budget is being thrashed out by the House and Senate Budget committees, which next week are expected to present the Defense Department with a "top line" figure representing the maximum amount that the department can spend next year.
Sources at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill said that number will be as much as $5 billion below the $309 billion requested by Bush, marking a 2% decline from this year's spending level after adjusting for inflation.
The Pentagon budget has fallen 11% in real terms over the last four years, after rising an average of 9% a year during the first five years of the Reagan Administration.
Likely targets of the new round of Pentagon budget-cutting include such expensive long-term programs as the "star wars" missile shield, the B-2 stealth bomber and new aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. But officials said that it is inevitable the 2.1-million-member armed forces also will shrink to achieve the savings sought by Congress.
Cheney said this week that all the easy cuts already have been made. "To the extent that there was any fat in the budget, if there was, it's gone. We're down to bone now and the choices I have to make are very difficult," he said in a television interview Tuesday.
And last week, Cheney expressed a clear preference for cutting overall troop levels rather than maintaining "a fiction of extensive forces" without money for ammunition, spare parts, flying hours and sailing days.
"If forced to choose, I'd rather be in a position to maintain highly effective and capable forces, even if they were fewer in number," Cheney said last Friday in his first news conference as defense secretary.
He hinted, also, that he will be likely to recommend outright cancellation of some weapons programs. Current plans to trim $6.3 billion from next year's Pentagon budget contain neither force reductions nor program terminations, defense sources said.
"I don't want to . . . convey the notion that somehow there is no pain involved in these budget cuts," Cheney said. Deferring or stretching out weapons purchases only pushes the problem down the road, he noted.
"I'd rather make a clean break," the former Wyoming congressman said.
Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said in an interview this week that the Administration's proposed Pentagon budget of $309 billion almost certainly would be reduced, but he would not predict by how much.
"I do think there will be a cut below the Administration number," he said.
Privately, however, lawmakers and committee staffers said that Congress would "split the difference" between the Administration request and the current year defense budget of $299 billion. The resulting $304 billion represents a 2% cut below the anticipated inflation rate. Defense Department budget planners did not disagree.
The Pentagon presents an attractive target for Democratic budget-cutters because of the Soviet Union's promises of reduced military spending and an apparent lessening of global tensions, specialists said. The United States and the Soviets are negotiating cuts in both strategic forces and conventional arms, talks that some lawmakers believe offer opportunities for defense savings.
"The climate of emergency that Reagan successfully fostered is no longer plausible," said Joshua M. Epstein, a defense analyst at Washington's Brookings Institution. "People feel there's room to relax the pace at which we've been building up our military forces."
Cheney, however, sharply disputed that premise.
"I feel very strongly that now is not the time for the U.S. to begin operating on the assumption that suddenly this is a safe and peaceful world and we no longer have to maintain our vigilance or our deterrence," he said at the press conference last week.
"If we're forced by budget pressures to make unilateral decisions, in effect, and not get anything for them in terms of negotiations with the Soviets, that would not be in our interest," he added.
If forced to cut spending, Cheney said, his first priority would be to protect what he called "quality of life issues" for military personnel, including pay, medical benefits, housing allowances and other benefits.