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Inhofe open to ‘exaggerated’ war budget

Armed Services chairman begrudgingly supports Trump’s gambit, setting the tone for other Republicans

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said $750 billion is needed for national defense in fiscal 2020. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said $750 billion is needed for national defense in fiscal 2020. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee told reporters Tuesday he would begrudgingly support a huge increase in the Pentagon’s war budget for programs unconnected to warfare if that is necessary to bankroll another boost to defense spending.

Oklahoma Republican James M. Inhofe said $750 billion is needed for national defense in fiscal 2020, compared to $716 billion in fiscal 2019. How that hike is achieved, he said, is of secondary importance.

Referring to the war account — known as the overseas contingency operations budget, which is not capped by law — he said: “I think there’s going to be an exaggerated figure there in order to get up to what we have to have to defend America.”

How the budget is “blended” between the OCO budget and the so-called base budget is not as important, he added, as achieving the overall $750 billion target.

Congressional aides have said they expect President Donald Trump to send the $750 billion defense request to Congress next month. About 95 percent of that goes to the Pentagon. The $750 billion total is expected to include $174 billion for the Defense Department OCO budget, the aides said — a figure that is more than double the current war budget of $69 billion.

The war money would come on top of a request for a $576 billion base defense budget.

The budget total is expected to be unveiled March 11, with details to come the following week. The figures are still subject to change, though aides believe that is unlikely.

The huge potential increase to the war budget would be a way to increase overall defense spending without having to increase the caps in law, which apply only to the base budget.

The proposed hike in OCO spending was first reported last week by Inside Defense.

Inhofe’s comments may foreshadow an overall positive Republican response to the emerging plan to pump up the war budget.

While using OCO for non-war spending is not ideal, many Republicans may say, it could be necessary to increase defense spending to the levels they want to maintain.

Democrats, for their part, will generally oppose the overall amount of money Trump proposes for defense — or at least insist on comparable boosts for non-defense programs. And Democrats will also be vocal in characterizing Trump’s defense budget gambit as a misuse of the emergency war account.

Ironically, the swelling of the OCO budget would come as Trump looks to extract U.S. troops from overseas conflicts, though Inhofe predicted that the withdrawals would not be as large as Trump initially advocated in December.

Despite the president’s call for a complete withdrawal of the up to 3,000 U.S. troops in Syria and his plans to bring home a sizable portion of the 14,000 in Afghanistan, Inhofe said he believes U.S. troops will stay in both countries in “ample” numbers, though he acknowledged he is not sure what kind of withdrawal plan the president will execute in either theater.

Trump “has heard from allies that would be disadvantaged if we pull out of either place, and one of those allies happens to be Israel,” Inhofe said. “So I think they’ll stay in there in a force that is adequate to not be the tip of the spear but to be the thought process behind it.” 

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