WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans declared Tuesday that they will push to increase the Clinton administration's proposed new $242.6-billion Pentagon budget to avert projected cuts in military procurement and missile defense programs.
At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, GOP lawmakers chided Defense Secretary William J. Perry for having reduced spending on modernization programs to "perilous" levels and renewed demands for early deployment of an antimissile defense system now in the works.
"I believe that the Congress will be required to add funds to the defense budget this year to provide for minimal levels of modernization," Chairman Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) told the secretary. "Modernization must be restored. Missile defense must become a reality."
At the same session, Perry warned the panel that he will consider recommending a veto if Congress appropriates additional money for the controversial B-2 radar-evading bomber, as the lawmakers did in the current year's defense bill despite the administration's opposition.
He said that if Congress were to require purchasing 20 more B-2s, it would have "an amazing, distorting effect on . . . everything" that the administration has proposed in this year's procurement program. The Pentagon opposes the B-2 program as too costly.
Separately, Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the same panel that he thinks it is unfair to require the armed forces to discharge service members who are found to be HIV-positive, as a bill Congress passed early this year would do.
Shalikashvili said that the services already have procedures to handle members who have medical problems that prevent them from being deployed. The discharge requirement, drafted by Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), is slated to take effect this summer.
The criticisms by Senate Republicans are likely to be echoed by their counterparts in the House today, when Perry and Shalikashvili appear before the House National Security Committee, whose members have expressed similar views.
Republicans in both houses are expected to seek to boost the military budget as part of a drive to portray the administration as soft on defense. The lawmakers increased the budget for fiscal 1996, which ends this September, by about $7 billion.
The administration's new defense budget would slash spending for purchases of new weapons and equipment to $38.9 billion for fiscal 1997, which begins Oct. 1--down from $42.3 billion in the current fiscal year and 70% below its level a decade ago.
The overall figure for military spending, $242.6 billion, represents a 6% drop, after accounting for inflation, from the current year's figure of $251.8 billion. Besides cutting procurement, Clinton pared spending on missile programs by $2.5 billion over five years.
The criticism of the administration's new defense budget Tuesday came almost entirely from Republicans. Democrats, even those who traditionally have backed a large defense budget, almost unanimously praised Perry for making hard decisions in a tight budget year.
Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.) ranking Democrat on the panel, congratulated Perry for what he said were "some extremely difficult choices that I expect caused a lot of discussion internally among you.
"If we're going to balance the budget by the year 2002, which seems to be the goal of all, we've got to realize and recognize that we can't always do everything that we would like to do," he asserted.
The Republicans' concerns about cutting modernization too much were underscored by Shalikashvili, who reiterated an earlier warning that the procurement budget must rise to $60 billion a year or more by 1998 or it will begin to hurt military readiness.
Under the administration's plan, the procurement budget would not reach that level again until 2001.
However, while conceding that he would "like to see the target set sooner rather than later . . , it is more important to me that we set [some kind of] target." He insisted that "this budget does" set a target.
"If we don't commit ourselves to such a $60-billion target, I am afraid we will never reach it," he said.
Perry told the lawmakers that he agrees with Shalikashvili that the $60-billion target for procurement spending should be put into effect as soon as possible but said that, given other demands, he would be unable to reach it by 1998, as the Joint Chiefs chairman asked.
"This is the best I can do with the restraints I'm working against," Perry said.